Photo by Joffrey Middleton-Hope, courtesy Shambhala Music Festival

Here’s How North America’s Most Advanced Festival Drug Testing Is Going So Far

The 15,000-person dance party known as Shambhala is using a mass spectrometer to detect trace amounts of opioids this weekend.

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Aug 11 2017, 5:12pm

Photo by Joffrey Middleton-Hope, courtesy Shambhala Music Festival

It's official, North America's most advanced party drug testing setup is now open for business.

In the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic that has already killed hundreds of people in British Columbia this year, Shambhala electronic music festival's harm reduction team can finally say it's testing for trace amounts of opioids like fentanyl. That's thanks to new spectrometer technology brought in by ANKORS, the organization that has been offering low-tech pill tests at the event for more than a decade.

When I called up Chloe Sage, who's heading up ANKORS's drug testing department this year, she told VICE the line to check pills was already 200 people deep Thursday afternoon. Concern about deadly synthetic opioids has reached an all-time high, said Sage, so a good chunk of the festival's 15,000 attendees don't mind waiting to test their party supplies in up to four different ways.

"When they get to the front of the line, we have someone go over the disclaimer with each person," Sage told VICE. Some festivals have had their insurance pulled just for offering drug testing, so Shambhala's disclaimer acknowledges the limitations of the tests and places responsibility with the user. ANKORS also asks for a bit of information for research purposes: what it was sold as, if it was purchased on festival grounds—"nothing personal," says Sage.

Shambhala has always had an open, non-judgmental policy about experimental drug use, which you can see as soon as you arrive. Each stage is its own other-worldly set piece, and campers tend to plan elaborate costumes weeks and months ahead of time—all basically in effort to trip people out. So it's oddly fitting that the festival's newest additions to the drug testing game seem straight out of sci-fi.

"With the RAMAN spectrometer, it's hand-held and uses UV light, so you don't have to touch the sample, you shoot a laser beam into it," Sage told VICE. This device is the first line of defence, along with the reagent colour tests they've offered for years, says Sage. The RAMAN gives a reading of the two major substances present, but it can't identify when a powder or pill is laced with a few grains of something else.

The next line of defence is a fentanyl strip test. Normally used as a urine test, these strips have been put to use in Vancouver's safe consumption sites to collect data and alert entrenched drug users when their heroin isn't heroin. At Shambhala, folks take a few grains of their sample, dilute it in water, and "like a pregnancy test," the strip will show either one or two lines after a few minutes. One line means fentanyl is present, two lines means the test result is negative.

But the real centrepiece for this year's testing outfit is a mass spectrometer, which can find even the smallest grains of adulterants. "Fentanyl is always going to be in trace amounts," Sage said. "This is why we've been trying to fundraise to get the technology to do this."

Dan, a PhD student who is voluntarily operating the mass spectrometer, told VICE they've done about 20 samples so far, and there's already been a few surprises.

"In one of the situations the RAMAN said it was ketamine, but it was cut with Tylenol, caffeine, and phenacetin," he said. Phenacetin is a common cocaine-cutting agent that was used for pain and fever relief in the 1970s. "All of these additives can be harmful and have effects that are undesirable. That's not something you can determine by any other method."

So far opioids haven't been showing up, according to the mass spec operator. "Opioids are very rare, we rarely come across them." More often he said drugs like MDMA are mixed with the drug's chemical precursors and intermediates—a side effect of "poor quality synthesis," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, the harm reduction team was waiting on a helium shipment to get the mass spectrometer up and running again. Even with the machine going full-steam, Sage says they can only test samples for about one in 20 of those who want it. "Anything that tests opioid-positive goes to the mass spectrometer as well."

Still, as long as nearby wildfires don't interrupt the weekend, Sage says ANKORS and partners at Interior Health will have undertaken the most in-depth study of festival drugs on the continent. "There really isn't any other drug testing service that uses this many types of technology."

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

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