Drug Checking Saves Lives at Music Festivals

Harm prevention methods used at Shambhala could help lessen the devastation of Canada’s fentanyl crisis

Some music festivals like Shambhala have taken steps to make the experience safer for attendees, and provide free drug tests that can detect dangerous substances like fentanyl.(flickr/Thomas_H_Photo)

After five different tests were done to detect dangerous substances in his sugar cube—supposed to contain LSD—Marc Andrews knew to take the experience seriously.

This was the 30-year-old’s first time at Shambhala Music Festival and his first time trying LSD, so he decided to take advantage of the drug checking that was offered there. As he sat in the warm harm-reduction tent, he thought about who he had purchased the sugar cubes from. The dealer had assured him that he purchased LSD in liquid form and put it in sugar cubes himself, adding that he was a regular user.

“Did he lie?” Andrews asked himself.

Saving Lives at Shambhala

As attendance to music festivals around the world climbs, so does the risk of overdoses—especially with fentanyl contamination becoming increasingly prevalent in Canada. Drugs like LSD, MDMA, and cocaine have become readily available in the party scene, and because those drugs are illegal, Shambhala is one of the only music festivals in Canada that allows drug checking.

Thanks to the drug-checking service, more than nine lives may have been saved at the event this year when AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS) staff identified nine cases of drugs containing accidental traces of fentanyl. Someone who has never tried fentanyl can overdose more easily than someone who’s a regular user, and it doesn’t take much to kill someone who is unknowingly taking the drug.

Canada doesn’t provide serious drug education, leading to widespread misuse of illicit substances when teens attending all-age events choose to take drugs. Negative effects can range from a bad experience to even an overdose. Offering drug education in combination with drug checking at music events could prevent these risks.

Shambhala Music Festival works with ANKORS to provide harm reduction services such as optional drug checking, which uses chemical reagents and fentanyl test strips to determine the main ingredients in each substance.

At the festival, an ANKORS drug-checking volunteer suggested one more test to Andrews as he wondered whether his drug dealer was honest with him. He scraped off more shards of sugar into the small dish and the volunteer dropped in more reagents, waiting for a colour to determine the substance.
“There we go; looks like this is 25I-NBOMe,” the volunteer said.

Although Andrews had no idea what this was, NBOMe is often substituted as LSD because it has similar effects, but the wrong dose can result in death. The drug was discovered around 2013 and has led to many overdoses, but little research on it has been conducted. With LSD alone there have never been any recorded deaths, but this year at a music festival in Melbourne three people died from taking NBOMe.

The volunteer explained to Andrews that it’s not always the dealer who is responsible for dealing the wrong drug—sometimes it is done by those higher up in the system. Either way, if Andrews didn’t get his substance tested, he could have died by consuming it.

Harm reduction has been one of Shambhala’s core values for over 15 years, according to Britz Robins, the head of the festival’s public relations and communications.

“Our main priority is keeping people safe, and harm reduction is a proven effective tactic,” she says.

Shambhala uses the world’s longest-running harm reduction program to empower people to make safer and more informed decisions about how they party. Robins says that the festival is able to provide the service because the volunteers don’t directly handle illegal substances—the attendees do. Under the direction of the volunteers, they open pills or scrape apart substances and drop it in the testing dishes. They also use an “amnesty bin,” meaning that any substance which the user doesn’t want, usually after a test produces worrying results, goes in the bin.

“The substances surrendered to the amnesty bin are then handed over to RCMP for study and analysis,” says Robins.

A document published in 2015 by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse recommended that music festivals give “consideration and investigation of the impact of drug checking” to promote health and reduce harm. The report came after five adults died and many more were treated on-site or admitted to the hospital while attending music festivals within a span of three months. It’s suspected that drugs and alcohol were contributing factors in these deaths and illnesses.

Shambhala and ANKORS have been drug checking at the festival for 17 years, so why are they still one of the only festivals to offer this service in Canada?

“A huge concern is the property where the festival takes place and who it belongs to,” says Chloe Sage, who works with ANKORS. “In the case of Shambhala, it’s private property owned by the festival organizers.”

She explained that other music festivals have tried to offer drug checking but, by doing so, risk losing their insurance or the land they lease for the event. It’s still unconventional for landowners to allow drug checking on their property.

Instead, Sage suggests that events don’t provide harm reduction on their own. Bringing in a company like ANKORS with their own insurance means less risks are taken by the music festival organizers. ANKORS has also provided harm reduction for a couple of smaller festivals, but the largest is Shambhala, which has an accumulated total of 67,000 weekend attendees.

The most common overdose this year at Shambhala was from GHB, a downer substance which is usually mixed in water and consumed orally. Many users overdose on GHB because they don’t measure the right amount before they consume it—the amount that allows users to have a euphoric experience and the amount that puts them in a coma are very similar.

Sage brought syringes for measuring liquid to the harm reduction tent at Shambhala so that attendees could regulate how much GHB was put into a bottle of water. She also brought food colouring so that the bottle could be easily identified to reduce the risk of the wrong person consuming it. As she puts it, “No one wants to drink a bottle of blue water.”

She adds that festivals offering drug checking can work together by sending out early alerts to one another about drug contamination, but because setting up harm reduction for a multi-day music festival is a huge operation, ANKORS needs at least six months notice in order to provide its services. Sage co-wrote Drug Checking at Music Festivals: A How-To Guide, and feels that drug checking should never be the only harm reduction service offered at music festivals.

“It should be accompanied with condoms and other harm reduction supplies,” she says.

Harm Reduction in Canada and Beyond

The Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer works by taking a small sample of a user’s substance and within minutes shows the major substances it contains. (Submitted by BC Centre on Substance Use)

Andrews, whose sugar cube could have been deadly, grew up in the Netherlands, where drug education is supported by the government. There, an organization educates high school students about substances by explaining what an overdose looks like, what different substances do, how they’re consumed, and more. He says that, after many people died from overdoses at music festivals in the 90s, the government decided to combat it by offering drug checking at major festivals and in most big cities.

“That’s when they saw good results,” he says. “It was also a turning point for when they began educating people on how to use drugs.”

Andrews says that more teenagers use substances in Canada than in the Netherlands—something he noticed at all-age music events. He believes that that’s because it’s easier to take substances than it is to drink when you are underage in Canada.

Andrews never tried any illegal substances until going to a music event here, where all of his friends were using MDMA. He was excited to attend Shambhala because it’s a 19-plus event, and has what he describes as a “really open policy about drugs.”

When the drug checking showed that a dangerous substance was in his sugar cube, Andrews says he learned a lesson about taking drugs, and he’s happy that he was prevented from having a bad experience.

For the last year and a half, Vancouver Coastal Health has been offering a pilot program in Vancouver to check substances with fentanyl test strips. This was limiting because it couldn’t identify if anything other than fentanyl was in the substance, or even what the substance was. However, from the positive effects of VCH’s fentanyl testing, the B.C. Centre on Substance Use was able to implement a new program.

The organization teamed up with the City of Vancouver to purchase a machine called the Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer to check a range of substances. The machine works by taking a small sample of a user’s drug and, within minutes, showing the major substances that it contains. This machine is being paired with the use of fentanyl test strips, as fentanyl is often hidden in doses too small for the machine to detect, but which can still be fatal for the user.

Because the fentanyl crisis in B.C. is the first of its kind, there’s no proven method for how to combat it, but there is evidence that drug checking has worked.

This evidence originates mainly from Europe, says Dr. Kenneth Tupper, the Director of Implementation and Strategic Partnerships at BCCSU, who is leading the drug-checking pilot.

“What we’re doing now will hopefully apply to more clients, ideally the party community and the people using drugs at home,” he says. “People want to know what’s in their substance.”

Tupper previously volunteered with Party Safe, an organization focusing on harm reduction at music events. Later, when working with the Ministry of Health, he tried implementing harm reduction, but there wasn’t a place for it until the fentanyl crisis began. The drug checking—along with education and other harm reduction techniques—is now available four days a week.

“It’s an opportunity to talk to people and build trust and have them deal with other potential health issues,” he says.

Organizers pushed for Shambhala to be a 19-plus event, but by doing so, people who are underage may go into isolated areas where there’s no cell phone service to have parties, Sage says. That can be risky. When there’s no support available for youth, and “when we push people underground, it gets dangerous,” she explains.

“If we say nothing, people will know nothing about the risks,” she says. “We always need to accept people as autonomous beings that will make up their own decisions.”

Sage believes in giving information about substances to all kinds of people, from daily users to those practicing abstinence because, as she says, “there will always be people making the decision to take drugs.”

NOTE: Andrews’ real name has been omitted for privacy reasons.

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