Shambhala Music Festival makes harm reduction a priority

The popular summer fest has been drug-testing for 17 of its 22 years, but that's only part of its mandate

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      It’s a hot day out at the Shambhala Music Festival in the Kootenays region of southeastern B.C., and Chloe Sage is outside looking at a TV screen that displays the results of drug tests to the festival’s attendees.

      “We’ve been finding quite a bit of methamphetamine in ketamine, and people are quite surprised about that,” she said in a phone interview from the festival site, about an hour's drive south of the city of Nelson. “We also have been finding 3-MeO-PCP and 4-MeO-PCP in ketamine. It's an analogue of PCP, and it has some side effects.”

      Sage is the drug checking project coordinator with AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS), a harm-reduction initiative that has provided drug-testing services at the long-running electronic music festival for 17 years (this year's fest runs from August 9 to 12).

      They started out using reagent testing kits, which involve placing parts of a pill into a testing liquid that changes colour according to what the substance actually is. Today, though, they have a 70-person team managing five Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) spectrometers and one gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/MS) spectrometer that can analyze a substance and instantly detect what’s in it. When they see a noteworthy result that they want festival attendees to know about, they’ll display it on a TV screen.

      The ANKORS drug-testing tent.

      Sage and the ANKORS team know that drug use at festivals like Shambhala isn’t going anywhere—they’re simply trying to make the practice safer.

      “Any time we're putting something in our body, we need to know what we're putting in our body,” Sage said. “We need to know that ingredient list so that we can make better choices about dosage and mixing, or not to take it at all.”

      But drug-testing is just one of many harm-reduction services that Shambhala—now in its 22nd year—offers. From its extensive medical team to its safe space for women to its emergency phone line, the festival plots out a lot of programs to ensure its attendees are safe.

      Partygoers have been taking drugs at electronic-music events since the 1980s heydays of Chicago house and acid house. In 2019, that drug usage hasn’t disappeared: Sage claimed that the lineup for drug-checking at Shambhala the day before the four-day festival opened was two hours long.

      ANKORS' drug-testing team leads.

      With its drug-checking service, ANKORS is simply allowing people to make safer choices around their drug usage. Take, for instance, the ketamine at the festival that was discovered to contain PCP.

      “Its very small dosage can be a negative dose,” Sage said. “If people are not knowing that it's in their ketamine, then they can take too much. And some of the things that happen are psychosis and aggressions, because it's got stimulating effects as well.”

      Likewise, she also talked about attendees testing what they think is cocaine and then discovering it’s actually ketamine after testing, or vice versa.

      “They're getting their drugs mixed up,” she said. “If someone did a line of coke, it would be a very different size than if someone did a bump of ketamine, right? So if they're thinking it's cocaine and they do a line, they could go into a k-hole and be completely unable to move for hours. Maybe not hours, but for a while.”

      There’s also the risk of a substance laced with fentanyl, the opioid that has triggered a public-health emergency in the province and contributed to thousands of overdose deaths in Canada.

      Interestingly, the festival rarely finds fentanyl in its tested drugs: out of 7,000 tests last year, only one substance was found with fentanyl. Regardless, Sage doesn’t want any fentanyl at the festival to go undetected, noting that two Xanax "bars" that ANKORS tested at the Bass Coast festival last month contained fentanyl.

      James Coletta/Shambhala

      “Someone who's normally taking a stimulant, they have no tolerance for fentanyl. That's a death.”

      For attendees who discover alarming substances in their drugs, there’s also an overdose prevention site at the festival that oversees select cases of high-risk drug consumption to make sure it’s done safely. For anyone having an opioid overdose, there are also staff trained to administer the drug naloxone, which reverses opioids' effects.

      Of course, drugs aren’t the only aspect of music festivals where harm can be found. Heat stroke, dehydration, exhaustion, and interpersonal fallouts can also turn a night at the festival into a bad time.

      One of the festival’s first ventures into harm reduction was the Sanctuary, a 24-hour supervised “chill zone” with beds in a shaded area for attendees to get a break from the chaos of the festival. Supervisors there are trained in "trip sitting", and they can take care of attendees who are having unfortunate experiences with psychedelic drugs.

      However, people can also go in if they’re simply feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or overstimulated in general.

      “There's people there to support anybody that comes in, and they come in for a variety of reasons,” said Stacey Lock, Shambhala’s harm-reduction coordinator, during a separate phone interview the same day.

      James Coletta/Shambhala

      Similarly, there’s also the Women's Safe Space area for women, nonbinary, and genderfluid folks who need a place to get away from men.

      “Women will come in there if they can't find their friends or if they've had a fight with their boyfriend or they're just feeling generally like they're alone...[or] they're feeling just vulnerable being a woman,” Lock said.

      She explained it’s a service that lots of attendees greatly appreciate.

      “Women are just coming in and saying, ‘Thank you’ for holding the space. A lot of times, most people are talking about historical trauma that has happened in their life and they come here and feel supported in their disclosures of historical trauma…They show a lot of appreciation for having the services that we do and kind of wish that they had that in their life during different times that they've had to encounter whatever crisis.”

      Brie'Ana Breeze Photography & Media/Shambhala

      Other noteworthy services include the “ask a sexpert” booth, the medical care team staffed with almost 200 volunteer medical professionals, and the outreach team that roams the festival site and lets people know about all of these services to begin with.

      The importance of “enthusiastic consent” is also highlighted throughout the festival. “We're trying to let everyone have the most fun, but, as we say: ‘Fun is number one but safety first,’” Lock said.

      “If somebody's sleeping, we check on them so they feel cared about because we're role-modelling that we care about them. And, in turn, we created a community of people that care about each other.”

      Harm-reduction practices are nothing new, either in B.C. or at music festivals. There are drug-testing services and supervised injection sites throughout the province, and initiatives such as ANKORS are providing drug-testing services at more than a dozen B.C. festivals this summer.

      Taylor Made Radio/Shambhala

      Yet what’s notable about Shambhala’s approach is not only how long it has been practising harm reduction but how extensive its services are. Shambhala has seven departments under the heading of harm reduction, and although Lock noted that she couldn’t speak for every festival, she said that she couldn’t think of any other festivals with that many departments.

      It’s an approach that Sage greatly appreciates.

      “We’ve created a culture where it's actually cool and awesome to take care of ourselves and each other here. I really feel like that is the good-news part of Shambhala and what we're doing has become the normal.”

      Although drug-testing services have expanded across the province, Sage also wants to see people use them more outside of festivals.

      “People really need to start thinking, ‘Oh yeah, right, I do coke on Saturdays, why wouldn't I go test that?’ ”

      However, Sage also acknowledged that it’s the outlawed status of many drugs that make it difficult for people to know what’s in the substances they’re using in the first place.

      “When we go to the store and we buy food, we know that the FDA has the food tested. And we know that when we read the ingredients list, that's what's in it. We need to have this kind of thing for illicit substances as well, and it makes it difficult with prohibition to do that.”