Ecstasy overdose caused death of UCLA student who went to rave at county fairgrounds

As Los Angeles County officials consider new rules on raves Tuesday, the coroner has determined that an Ecstasy overdose caused the death of an 18-year-old UCLA student who attended a rave at the county fairgrounds in Pomona last summer.

Tracy Nguyen, of West Covina, was about to enter her second year at UCLA when she died from the overdose Aug. 1.

A second woman also died after attending the event: Katie Dix, 19, a Cal State Channel Islands student. Her death is suspected to be related to a drug overdose but a final cause of death has not been released by the coroner.

There have now been at least 21 confirmed drug-related deaths among people who went to raves nationwide by Los Angeles-area companies since 2006. Ten have died in Southern California and five in the Las Vegas area.

Drug overdoses have been a major problem at electronic dance music festivals, where use of the illegal drug Ecstasy and similar substances are closely tied to the rave experience. Some doctors have called for a ban on such events, as was ordered in 2010 by the Cow Palace, a state-run venue near San Francisco that experienced numerous drug-related overdoses and deaths.

After the two deaths in Los Angeles County last summer, the Board of Supervisors ordered officials to study a ban on raves at county facilities.

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At the time, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich called the operators of the rave “irresponsible” said that “if raves are only going to exist when drugs and alcohol are available, then they are no longer welcome in Los Angeles County’s facilities.” Supervisor Hilda Solis said “no one should have to lose their life by attending a music event at one of our facilities.”

A proposal now being considered by the supervisors falls far short of a ban. Instead, it suggests an ordinance that would give the county the authority to regulate mass gatherings with an attendance of more than 10,000 people on county property or any event in unincorporated areas.

Under the proposal, the county could require a minimum ratio of security personnel to event attendees, instruct the promoter to provide on-site medical care and prohibit minors from attending the event.

Other recommendations include installing “amnesty boxes” for patrons to discard illegal drugs, which have already been established for raves at the fairgrounds, and halting alcohol sales at least an hour before the end of the last music performance.

Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, said that while the supervisor “does not want to see raves happen anywhere in the county, this recommendation does address some of the concerns that have been raised with regards to raves.”

The new ordinance envisioned under the proposal would put organizers “under great, great scrutiny,” said Fred Leaf, a senior policy advisor to Antonovich. “If they can’t comply with the requirements that we determine is necessary, then we would disallow the event.”

The supervisors could vote Tuesday to direct county lawyers to draft such an ordinance. A similar law is in place allowing state agencies to have such oversight over mass gatherings and raves on state land.

But some neighbors of the county fairgrounds, known as the Fairplex, urged supervisors to do whatever they can to stop raves at that site, saying that Ecstasy and similar drugs are integrally tied to the rave experience.

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“Raves should not return to the Fairplex. Using drugs is part of the culture, and young people are injured and some even die,” said Judy St. John, 69, a retired teacher who has opposed raves at the Fairplex since they first began in 2014. “There were two deaths. That should not be allowed to happen again. And the only way to stop it is to stop having raves.”

She called the enhanced array of first-aid stations and the existence of amnesty boxes a tacit acknowledgment that drug use is expected. “The problem is the drugs, and they can’t keep the drugs out.”

Last summer, 49 people at the Aug. 1-2 Hard Summer music festival had to be transported to emergency rooms by ambulance, according to the county and the worst-hit hospital, Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center. Officials say that is a big number and highly unusual for a single event.

When raves were held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena, emergency room doctors in downtown said they were stunned at the number of comatose and otherwise severely ill people coming into their hospitals.

Doctors recalled teenage patients coming in with convulsions and heart attacks, leaving some who survived with permanent brain damage as well as impaired speech and walking ability. Raves stopped being held at the Coliseum and Sports Arena in 2011, months after a 15-year-old girl who attended a rave died of an Ecstasy drug overdose the previous summer.

Ecstasy can cause fatalities because it can trigger a sharp increase in body temperature of up to 109 degrees -- high enough to cause organ failure. Ravegoers are often told to drink plenty of water, but some drink too much, which can cause sodium levels to crash and trigger a seizure that makes it hard to breathe, leaving some people to fall into fatal comas.

The drug can also cause the breakdown of muscle into a chemical that damages the kidneys, which can be deadly. 

The Los Angeles County Fair Assn., the nonprofit group that manages the fairgrounds for the county, has come under scrutiny in recent months. Earlier this month, The Times reported that the fair association paid its chief executive, James Henwood Jr., more than $1 million in total compensation in 2014, the fifth straight year the organization reported financial losses.

State and county officials have criticized the compensation as excessive and have ordered audits of the fair association. Officials for the fair association have defended the compensation practices as justified because of the complexity of the organization.

ron.lin@latimes.com | Twitter: @ronlin

richard.winton@latimes.com | Twitter: @lacrimes

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