How Do We Stop Drug Deaths at Canadian Music Festivals?

More organizers and promoters want to offer drug testing kits on site, but fear having their operating licenses revoked.

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Jun 6 2016, 4:50pm

Shambhala Music Festival

We've all been there at least once. Tickets bought. Tent wrangled. Cooler of beer jammed in the trunk. Chain store kimono on, and texts sent to the dealer. With June comes festival season, and for many, this is the recipe for the best weekend ever.

Anyone who's been through the ritual of preparing for a festival has also likely had to take care of a friend who starts wigging out, whether from a bad trip or combining the wrong substances. Add copious amounts of booze and incessant fist-pumping in 30 degrees Celsius heat, and people can end up in potentially dangerous territory.

Mainstream media does a fine job of fearmongering about drugs, but the danger is real. In 2014, two people in their early 20s died after taking party drugs at VELD, a Toronto EDM festival, and another 13 were sent to hospital. A 24-year-old woman died after taking drugs at Boonstock Festival in Penticton, BC, and a 21-year-old man was found dead in his tent at British Columbia's Pemberton Music Festival that same summer. Last summer, another 21-year-old man died after attending Evolve Festival in Antigonish, NS, while Calgary's Chasing Summer festival saw a total of 17 overdoses.

This reality has not escaped festival organizers. For the most part, festivals are divided into two camps when it comes to dealing with inevitable drug use on site: some operate on a hardline zero-tolerance policy, while others rely more on harm reduction tactics.

Read More on THUMP: Canada's Evolve Festival in Jeopardy Again

Because the drugs most commonly used at these events—usually cocaine and MDMA, but also GHB, K, and others—are illegal, it can seem like the only legal response organizers can make is to preach zero tolerance, providing amnesty boxes, conducting exhaustive searches, and charging those found in contravention of the law.

That's how Kitchener, ON's Ever After festival is run, founder Gabriel Mattacchione told THUMP: he has drug dogs working the gates, and he says anyone found with drugs will be charged.

Since it's a known fact that people will find ways to get their substance of choice into a festival, those on the harm reduction side operate from the perspective that there are actions people can take to use drugs in the safest manner possible. They spread messaging about the importance of being familiar with the festival site, educating yourself on your drug of choice, drinking plenty of water, using sunscreen, and taking rest to avoid burnout.

There's one element of harm reduction that some say works better than all others, but it is also nearly impossible to implement in an official capacity: drug testing kits.

What are the barriers around pill testing kits?

Evolve Festival, photo courtesy of Evolve

Many people on the harm reduction side feel the kits are the gold standard, but most festivals have not yet been able to make use of them for fear of losing their insurance, and due to a lack of clarity in the law.

Last summer, after 21-year-old Dylan Champion died, Evolve producer Jonas Colter decided it was time to incorporate pill testing. His insurance company though, read that as an admission of drug use on the property, and bowed out of the Nova Scotia festival. It was later revealed that Champion had died of natural causes, but the county of Antigonish demanded that the festival create a new medical plan. Unlike the pre-existing plan, which had been developed by paramedics, this one had to be written by a doctor.

There was some red tape, missed deadlines on the part of various people, and repeated conflict between the festival and the county. The festival, which has been held on the same grassy knoll for years, was forced to move: its new home will be in Beersville, NB, about 60 kilometres north of Moncton. Nine weeks away from the event, Colter took a break from clearing brush on the new site to take my call.

"Testing kits are best practice," he tells THUMP. Festivals like BC's Shambhala have testing kits on site so people can make informed choices about what they imbibe, and he wants to do the same thing at Evolve.

"[Evolve is] one of the easier events to provide security to," he says. "It's mostly college students playing Woodstock for the weekend. There might be, of about 5,000 people, about 10 bad apples." Last year, he says a total of eight people were taken to the hospital from festival grounds, and that was for reasons ranging from heat stroke to drug-related psychosis. As for this year, Colter couldn't say whether pill testing will be available at the new site.

Read More on THUMP: Everything You Need to Know About GHB in Canada's Club Scene

What happened last year with Evolve is affecting other festivals' strategies. Stacey Forrester is in charge of harm reduction initiatives with BC's Bass Coast, and she says she doesn't see how the festival could possibly implement the kits with the laws as they stand.

"Even before [what happened with] Evolve, we recognized that there's a degree of liability with the insurance provider once you acknowledge that there are substances on site in that manner," she tells THUMP over Skype. "We were thinking of doing it last year, with a soft rollout of a few hours on the peak nights. The week before, Evolve got shut down for pill testing, and we pulled the plug and decided to spend the year analyzing what to do about it."

She explains that each year, the number of people who asked for pill testing was under 10, and that of the instances that sent five or so people to hospital, none could have been prevented by testing. The changes in insurance that might come with testing, Forrester says, just weren't worth it.

Even before [what happened with] Evolve, we recognized that there's a degree of liability with the insurance provider once you acknowledge that there are substances on site in that manner — Stacey Forrester, Bass Coast

Alongside questions about insurance come questions about legality. The RCMP has said the kits themselves are legal, but paradoxically, people don't always feel safe using them. They fear arrest since the use of a kit by necessity, involves possession of a controlled substance. As a result, organizers are left to rely on ex post facto methods to deal with drug use.

Police don't seem to want to weigh in on the matter. THUMP put in a request to Toronto Police asking if use of the kits is legal. Spokesperson Mark Pugash said that was an "artificial question" and that police work with problems "in the real world." I asked whether someone who tested someone else's drugs would be arrested, and he said he "doesn't answer speculative questions" or offer legal advice.

Read More on THUMP: How Do We Stop Drug Deaths At Festivals?

It's partially because of this lack of legal clarity that festivals like VELD, despite their harm reduction policies, also have statements like this on their sites:

"VELD is a drug-free environment and has an enforced zero-tolerance policy. The use of illicit substances is not condoned and can have serious effects on your health and safety, especially if used in combination with regular prescribed medications, alcohol, and minimal hydration on a hot and humid day."

Nicholas Boyce started going to raves in the late 90s, and he's been working with organizations like TRIP! and Toronto's Research Group on Drug Use for years. He is now the director of the Ontario HIV and Substance Use Training Program, and he says attempting to enforce a zero-tolerance policy is unreasonable.

"Zero tolerance approaches are just ridiculous," he tells THUMP. "It's just not the reality of the world. And even outside of festival situations, we know that prohibition doesn't work. There are people who like to do [drugs], they want to do it, and they're going to do it. People are living in fantasyland if they think they can stop it."

Boyce says zero-tolerance policies further stigmatize drug use, and that in turn creates a more dangerous environment for users. He says festival promoters and police can do a lot more than they're currently doing.

So what needs to change?

Shambhala Music Festival, photo courtesy of Shambhala

On the promoter side, Boyce suggests implementing some of the recommendations that came out of the Allen Ho inquest. Ho died after a Toronto rave in 1999 due to complications of MDMA, and there were 19 recommendations made by the jury following his death. One of those recommendations was for raves to add a surtax to their ticket prices and give that money directly to harm reduction organizations like TRIP!.

As for police, he says it would be helpful if they tested the drugs they seized from festivals and shared the results of those tests with harm reduction agencies and health organizations so that they could have a better sense of what it is that people are actually taking.

Currently, Pugash says, Toronto police hold samples for 72 hours after an event, and if there's a safety issue during or just after the festival, they'll run a test in order to determine the threat to public safety.

Read More on THUMP: THUMP's Guide to Raving Safely 2015

"If there is a problem," Pugash says, "it will crop up in that period." He couldn't say for sure whether conversations have happened about changing this policy and doing wider-scale testing.

Promoters and producers looking for more festival safety recommendations can look to a report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse for guidance. There are no national or provincial guidelines for addressing drug use at festivals, and so healthcare providers, law enforcement officials, toxicologists, festival producers and others met to brainstorm the issues and best practice for dealing with those issues. The report is a result of that meeting, and it includes of recommendations for actions that would make festivals safer. The list of actionables suggests that promoters communicate known drug risks through social media, and that non-judgmental training is provided for personnel on substance use behaviours and appropriate responses to those behaviours. It also suggests the inclusion of safe spaces for people experiencing bad trips or burnout.

In the meantime, promoters and producers will remain hesitant about incorporating kits into harm reduction policies. Those running the festivals are left with little choice but to offer up well-worn nuggets of common sense. And festival-goers are left to drink water, research to the best of their abilities, and hope for the best.


Sarah Ratchford is on Twitter.