Evolve Festival drug-testing kits wouldn't have helped, doctor says

An Antigonish doctor says the controversial drug-testing kits that had been proposed for the Evolve Festival wouldn't have helped concertgoers avoid "terrifying" drug-related medical emergencies.

St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., had extra doctor to deal with emergencies

The Evolve Music and Awareness Festival has been held annually in Antigonish, N.S., since 2000. (Chris Smith/Evolve)

An Antigonish, N.S., doctor says the controversial drug-testing kits that had been proposed for the Evolve Festival wouldn't have helped concertgoers avoid "terrifying" drug-related medical emergencies.

Dr. Maureen Allen, the director of emergency services at St. Martha's Regional Hospital, says the people who had to be taken to the hospital during the four-day festival weren't sick because of drug impurities, which the kits were designed to detect.

Instead, Allen said, hospital staff observed symptoms caused by overdoses and the ingestion of multiple drugs.

"There were some very terrifying and demanding experiences with some of the patients that were brought in from the Evolve event," she said. 

Evolve's organizer Jonas Colter says he believes that drug-purity testing kits would have made buyers more aware and eased stress on Antigonish-area emergency responders. (CBC)

Festival organizer Jonas Colter said this year's event was Evolve's safest yet, although overdoses have been an annual problem. Colter had planned to use drug kits to test for drug impurities, and said there could have been fewer health emergencies if his insurance company had supported the strategy.

But Allen disagrees.

'We were seeing everything'

"I feel very strongly that a harm reduction philosophy is a good philosophy, but it's really taken out of context," she said.

"There's this sense of safety that if they just screened these drugs for impurities that we're going to make the rave safe — that's inaccurate." 

According to Allen, 16 patients between the ages of 17 and 32 came to St. Martha's Regional Hospital with problems symptomatic of multiple drugs — including cocaine, ecstasy and alcohol during the festival.

Dr. Maureen Allen, director of emergency services at St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., says an extra doctor was needed over the weekend to help Evolve concertgoers with medical emergencies. (CBC)

Dehydration, heat and exhaustion made the problems worse, she said. 

"We were seeing everything," she said. "These are not bruises and scrapes. These are really significant medical concerns and medical problems that require a lot of resources of the emergency department."

The Mounties said seven people were charged with trafficking, 12 people were charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking, 10 people were charged with possession and four people were charged with impaired driving. 

Potentially deadly symptoms

Allen said the severity of symptoms seen this year  — including hyper-vigilant states, confusion, agitation and seizures — could have been deadly. 

"We had at least three kids come in one cluster with seizures, and this would be a grand mal seizure that was associated with the drug use," she said.

"That seizure, that altered delirium, is the state that can actually take their life."

Allen said paramedics were reporting other seizures happening on site, but that people were refusing assistance. 

The attendees refusing medical treatment were doing so because they wanted to stay at the festival, Allen said — adding that their entry wristbands would have been cut off if they'd been taken to hospital.

"I really want to get people to understand that — and I can only comment on my experience with this particular festival — that it is not safe to have our kids out there for four days consuming multiple substances. We need to do more work as a community," she said.

Allen said patients were still arriving on Monday, even though the festival had ended Sunday night.

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