Thousands of Canadian festival-goers came close to a major let down this weekend. Yesterday, July 7, Evolve Festival's liability insurance was pulled by Wynward Insurance Group in Halifax after the festival announced they would be offering free drug testing on site. The three-day festival is set to start this Thursday, July 9. Jonas Colter, the festival's producer, says they scrambled all day yesterday trying to find new underwriters. "It's an amazing community we have…it seems like we found an insurance provider,'' says Colter, announcing on his YouTube channel late last night. He says that drugs will inevitably make their way into the festival and that their intentions are to try and keep people safe. "Festivals in Canada and around the world use drug testing kits and they've been proven to work," he says.
"Everyone else is on board with this [drug testing]; the RCMP, EHMS, doctors at the emergency room, the county counsel of Antigonish…everyone think it's a good idea," he says. "We got back to the insurance provider and said, 'Ok, we won't have drug testing in that case', but we never got an answer from them," he says. Wynward Insurance Group did not respond to our interview request.
Last year, six ambulances were sent to the Antigonish County highlands, where Evolve was taking place. Colter says that the new strategy was meant to ease up on ambulance services. In previous years, drug use has put stress on local emergency responders. The tests Colter wants to implement are capable of analyzing LSD, MDMA, and speed. "I don't understand why they've [the underwriters] backed out; drug testing is in their interest," he says.
Other festivals in Canada have been offering drug test kits for years. Colter says he consulted with Shambhala Music Festival in B.C., who also opt for a more realistic approach to mitigate harm related to drugs. Every year, the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS) sets up a booth at Shamb to provide free drug testing for harmful substances—and it's working. (See below for current statistics.) In their most recent report, they found that most people were very surprised when they found out the drugs they'd bought weren't actually MDMA and speed, but baths salts and meth.
Evolve organizers hope to learn about what drugs are out there and plan to share that information with other festivals in the region. "The truth is that the party scene has changed and a lot of people don't know what they're taking,'' says Colter. Colter, like many music festival organizers, is right to have worries. Last year, about 80 people were admitted to hospitals in Canada after overdosing at festivals, and a woman died of a suspected drug overdose at the Boonstock festival in Penticton, B.C.. Two more died at Toronto's VELD Music Festival last summer.
Colter says that drug test kits are part a larger harm reduction strategy. He says volunteers with be offering free water, condoms, and most importantly, education. He says they'll also be putting emphasis on promoting safe driving among festival-goers. "More people die leaving festivals in motor vehicles than they do in any other way. Nobody has died at Evolve, but we've had two fatalities in the last fifteen years from people falling asleep at the wheel on their way home," he says.
Evolve festival started off in 2000 as a music and cultural festival, and aims to bring awareness to sustainable living and current environmental issues. This year's lineup will include many electronic music acts such as French house music purist Phil Weeks, Skratch Bastid, Stickybuds, trap artists Keys N Krates, Toronto producer/DJ Grandtheft, Montreal's Doldrums, and tons of local talent like Halifax's Dezza and Dub Kartel
ANKORS compiles statistics every year outlining the results of their drug testing efforts at Shambhala Music Festival. They recently released stats from the 2013 festival:
Total tests done: 2,254
Number of drugs disposed of after the test: 155 (6.8%)
MDMA capsules that tested positive for MDMA: 1,302
MDMA capsules that tested negative for MDMA: 339
Failure rate of MDMA capsules: 21%
Ketamine samples that tested positive for ketamine: 158
Ketamine samples that tested negative for ketamine: 63
Failure rate of ketamine samples:29%
Mystery substances: 91