How Evolve fans took on the festival's drug problem

Volunteer harm-reduction teams providing drug testing, counselling, sexual assault prevention

Music festivals in Canada are facing huge challenges when it comes to keeping their patrons safe: everything from sexual assaults to the lethal opioid fentanyl, which is showing up in recreational drugs.

In 2014, five people died at festivals across the country, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. In response to these challenges, festivalgoers have been organizing volunteer-run harm reduction initiatives to keep their beloved annual events safe.

CBC News followed attendees at this year’s Evolve music festival, a staple of summertime celebrations in Atlantic Canada, as they encountered a small army of volunteers over four days of festivities in mid- July.

Evolve has had a reputation for rampant drug use for most of its 18-year history. In 2015, a man died after attending the festival from natural causes. Although unrelated to the event, the death thrust the festival and its drug policies into the spotlight. It’s been trying to clean up its reputation ever since. Part of that effort was moving the festival to a new site in Beersville, N.B., about 60 km northwest of Moncton, this summer.

Drug use

On a blazing hot July day, young people in summer attire arrive in Beersville with coolers and tents packed into cars painted with flowers, happy faces and signs wishing everyone a “happy Evolve.” Inside the volunteer medic tent, things are quiet.

Adam Mitchell has been a volunteer medic at Evolve for 10 years, and while most people here are looking out for each other, he says he worries about drug dealers getting in “to sell bad drugs to people and make them very ill.”

Once festivalgoers have passed the police checkpoint at the end of the dirt road leading to the site and through a private security sweep of their vehicle, it’s time to set up their tents and “begin the journey” — a saying many use to describe their Evolve experience.

The first stop is a visit to Josh Watts, 31, an Evolve veteran from Halifax who’s been coming to the festival for 14 years. He spends almost the entire festival inside a tent with a yellow and white striped canopy and a sign advertising free drug testing.

Along with artist Zoe Tipney, 30, he’s organized 25 volunteers to help man the tent for the four-day event — independently of festival organizers. They have ear plugs, condoms and water to hand out and are armed with testing chemicals that can discern with some certainty whether or not a drug is what the person taking it thinks it is.

A man in his early 20s stops by to test the cocaine he bought for the festival. Turns out, it is, indeed, cocaine and isn’t laced with anything else, at least not anything that Watts’s test can detect.

"Cocaine. Pure cocaine."

Evolve festival attendee after having his drugs tested

The man says he’ll be back to have more drugs tested later. He returns to his tent to snort the drugs as the first of the weekend’s 130 acts takes the stage.

Inside the drug testing tent, Watts is joined by other harm-reduction volunteers. One off them is Greg Weins, an addictions counsellor who grew up going to Evolve every summer and flew from Toronto to continue the tradition this year. But this time, he’s back to help.

He has been trained to administer naloxone (Narcan), an opiate antidote that can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids such as fentanyl. As sunset nears, he sets out to roam the festival’s tent city looking for anyone who might have consumed too much. Before the night is over, at least two people at the festival will need naloxone.

Chilling out

On the other side of the main stage, 28-year-old, curly-haired Coco Harris, a self-proclaimed “budding herbalist” from Nova Scotia’s south shore, is boiling water for tea inside a dome tent known as the Tea Hive.

The tent, which is lined with blankets and pillows, is intended as a place for festivalgoers to decompress, drink tea and find someone to sit and talk with if they are feeling overwhelmed. According to Harris, the Tea Hive represents the step before the paramedics. It’s manned by volunteers all day and night. The only rule: no shoes.

Inside, volunteers are starting to see the first signs of a day spent in the sun. Thirsty festivalgoers wander into the Tea Hive, reacquainting with old friends or introducing themselves to new ones.

“It's so important with everything that's happening these days,” says Harris, referring to Canada’s opioid crisis. She explains that more and more recreational drugs are being cut with opiates.

"It's getting a little bit scary out there."

Coco Harris, chill tent volunteer

"We know people are doing things, so we want to make sure everyone's safe doing it,” says Harris, who spends the summer travelling the festival circuit in Atlantic Canada.
She also carries a naloxone kit, clipped to the side of her dress.

As the night wears on, people wander in, in need of a little hydration or simply someone to sit with. People hold each other and sway inside the Tea Hive.

Two tents over, a team of four paramedics working the night shift in an air-conditioned RV is ready to help if needed.

Paramedics, left to right, Kevin McCormack, Chris Wall, Jaylee White and Bobby Kemp in the middle of a 12-hour night shift at Evolve music festival.

Paramedics, left to right, Kevin McCormack, Chris Wall, Jaylee White and Bobby Kemp in the middle of a 12-hour night shift at Evolve music festival.

And there’s little doubt they will be needed.
“It's just starting,” says Saint John paramedic Chris Wall, 30. “It's only 11 o’clock. These kids haven't even had all their drugs yet.”

Dance floor patrol

Outside the door to the Tea Hive, Peter Nicholson, a 23-year-old sustainable engineer technician living in Halifax, and his team of volunteers meet up for a shift patrolling the dance floor looking for evidence of non-consensual sexual conduct. They wear fuzzy cat-ear headbands and call themselves the Consent Kitties.

Anne Scarth, shows off a pair of shorts sporting positive messages encouraging consent.

Anne Scarth, shows off a pair of shorts sporting positive messages encouraging consent.

As night falls and the moon comes out, the DJs unveil a new 360-degree stage — dubbed the Mother Ship — that was built just in time for the opening of the festival, with the final nails hammered and finishing touches completed as crowds were already streaming into the festival grounds.

It’s an hour from midnight, and on the grass near the main stage, crowds close in and sing along to Xavier Rudd, a long-haired Australian with a Bob Marley vibe. A couple making out on the ground begins having sex. A nearby security guard walks over and nudges them with his foot.

Nicholson says most of what the kittens do is remind people that “consent is sexy” and “all you have to do is ask.”

As the kittens make their way around the festival grounds, they explain what they do and why to the people they encounter. Out in the dance area, they spot a couple grinding up against each other. They don’t notice anything that looks non-consensual, so they move on.

The founder of the Consent Kitties is James MacDonald, 29, a property manager. He says he decided to start the group after his friends began complaining that they didn’t want to go out to dance clubs anymore because they didn’t feel comfortable. MacDonald says Evolve helped give him confidence to be himself as he was growing up, and he wants to make sure it continues to be a place where people feel safe and comfortable.

"They aren't the fun police."

James MacDonald, founder of Consent Kitties

Much of what Macdonald and the other volunteers at the festival do overlaps with the kind of harm-reduction interventions regular police and security personnel carry out. The effect, however, is different when the intervention is coming from a fellow festivalgoer rather than someone in uniform. Volunteers, after all, are just festivalgoers who are taking a sober shift to patrol the grounds.

“Security doesn't always have the bedside manners that you would want dealing with that situation,” says Zoey Tipney, whom we met in the drug-testing tent at the start of the night.

100 tests in 4 hours

Around 1 a.m., Nicholson — who is still on shift as a Consent Kitty — wanders over to the tent city, which is now completely enveloped in darkness, and joins up with other volunteers at the drug-testing tent.

The volunteers might focus on different aspects of the festival experience, but they see themselves as part of one team with one goal: keeping people safe.

Inside the tent, Watts is back from taking a short break, and he’s beginning a six-hour overnight shift testing drugs. People have been lining up outside the tent. A whiteboard that hangs out front is regularly updated and lets passersby know at a glance the kind of drugs the testers are finding at the festival.

Watts says he's done about 100 tests in the last four hours, and so far, most of the drugs have turned out to be what they were sold as.

He says a group of girls came by earlier to test some pills that someone gave them for free. The drugs turned out to be what they thought they were: MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

But earlier in the night, tests of some pills sold as MDMA revealed they were, in fact, a type of drug dubbed bath salts, synthetic psychoactive stimulants that can cause hallucinations, agitation, paranoia and feelings of euphoria.

Watts says he also encountered something he’s never come across: MDMA that had two other types of drugs in it. Watts wasn’t able to tell what the drugs were.

“I told them, I wouldn't take that,” Watts says. “I would never encourage anybody to use illegal drugs, even if it’s what they thought it was, but in that case, I can definitely tell somebody not to take it, because it's not good.”

As Watts settles in for his night shift, the paramedics in the first aid trailer on the other side of the festival grounds are already halfway through theirs. Calls are coming in over the radio. One festivalgoer tripped on a tent pole and broke his collarbone. He tells the paramedics he just got to the festival and doesn’t want to go to the hospital. That’s fine, they say. They put his arm in a sling and tell him to get the injury X-rayed soon. It’s 2 a.m., and that’s the worst they’ve had to deal with so far. But that will change.

3 overdoses, 1 arrest

Over the next six hours, paramedics will administer two doses of Narcan — in the form of a nasal spray — to two girls who overdosed. They arrange to have them transported to hospital. They say they’re not sure whether or not the cause of the overdoses was fentanyl.

Before the four-day festival is over, they will deal with another overdose and send one person to hospital with heat stroke.

As dawn breaks, campers pack up and volunteers gather what’s left of their harm-reduction supplies. They’ve given out more than 300 condoms and 1,000 ear plugs.

RCMP officers seized prescription drugs, cocaine, marijuana and what they believe was crystal meth. They also arrested a 23-year-old man at an entry checkpoint and charged him with possession with the purpose of trafficking what they believe to be crystal meth.

James MacDonald and his volunteers say it was a successful first festival for the Consent Kitties. A highlight for MacDonald was the moment when a male festivalgoer approached one of the kitten-eared volunteers and asked for advice on how to approach someone he wanted to dance with. Macdonald says he’s planning to have Consent Kitties at more festivals in the future.

It’s an effort applauded by the festival’s head of security, Michael Pullen. He says Evolve has a happy vibe, but sometimes, that can mean people let their guard down. He welcomes volunteer efforts but says an official security presence is still needed.

“We have excellent relationships between all these avenues of harm reduction,” he says. “That kind of holistic approach to keeping people safe is one that I think this kind of festival needs, and it's something that we're able to provide.”
After all, it could have been a lot worse. We’ll never know how many overdoses were prevented by the actions of the volunteers.