The Current

Could drug testing at music festivals save lives?

Some music festival goers are getting their party drugs tested this summer. Critics argue this sends the wrong message, but advocates say people should know what they're taking in the age of fentanyl.
Summer music festivals are increasingly providing on-site drug testing and safe spaces because of increasing concerns over drug contamination and high incidents of sexual assault. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

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The issue of drug safety at music festivals across the country has prompted a controversial practice where substances are quickly tested before ingested.

Just recently, a non-profit group in Montreal caused a stir by calling for drug testing analysis to be available at Quebec music festivals — to guard against fentanyl exposure.

Critics say that drug testing only promotes drug taking.

But Chloe Sage sees it differently. She wants to make it safer for people who are planning on using drugs at the Shambhala Music Festival in B.C.

She works with the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS), an organization dedicated to harm reduction for people who use drugs. 

"We really believe that people need to understand the risks associated with drugs and the risks around what is in the drugs they are taking before they choose to use it," Sage tells The Current's summer host Mike Finnerty.
With fentanyl showing up in the drug known as ecstasy, advocates say all music festivals should test drugs. (Amy Harris/Invision/Associated Press)

Sage says her organization has been operating drug testing at Shambhala Music Festival for about 15 years. She explains there's a long list of substances they test for by using chemical reagents.

"We were able to tell people one ingredient in what they had, or we were able to tell whether drugs were misrepresented," she explains.

"About between 20 and 30 per cent of substances coming into the tent came back unknown or not what people thought they were."

This year, new technologies have been added to help narrow down ingredients, and they now use fentanyl test strips.

Sage suggests music festivals across Canada are reluctant to take on drug testing because the process is restrictive.

"We need to change some of the policies around this to be easier to embrace."

Beyond policy, it's the stigma and criminalization associated with drug use that has to change, according to Sage.

"I think when you criminalize the people who use drugs, then you create an environment where they can't talk about what they do and that puts them at a greater risk," she tells Finnerty.

 "[If] we treat it as a health issue and we respect the fact that people make choices about their own lives and we just, without judgment, help them be educated around what they're taking, I think we have a much healthier society."

Creating safe spaces

When it comes to drug safety at music festivals, bad doses of recreational drugs aren't the only concern. Sometimes drugs are ingested without consent.

Festival goer Melanie Doucet says she knew right away when she couldn't speak properly that her drink had been spiked at Montréal's Osheaga music festival last summer.

Woman claims she was drugged at Osheaga and no one helped

7 years ago
Duration 0:31
Featured VideoMelanie Doucet says when she reported that she was drugged to security crews at the festival, she was brushed off.

Doucet made it home safely but an alarming number of patrons attending festivals around the world have been victims of sexual violence.

At Sweden's largest music festival recently, police reported four rapes and 23 sexual assaults — prompting next year's event to be cancelled.

Related: Swedish music festival cancels 2018 event after sexual assault reports 
A large music festival in Sweden that has seen performances by artists such as Kanye West, Robbie Williams and Iron Maiden has called off their 2018 event after several reports of sexual abuse. (Pontus Lundahl/The Associated Press)

Kira-Lynn Ferderber says an anti-sexual violence strategy is as essential to any major event as a fire evacuation plan. She's a sexual violence prevention educator who works with festival organizers to create safe areas for attendees.

Ferderber's advice to festival goers is to implement a safety strategy, what she calls bystander intervention.

"It basically means paying attention to what's going on around you, whether you're an artist, just an attendee, a security person, somebody who's a vendor, and if you see something that doesn't look okay, if you see somebody that's in trouble, approaching them, asking them if they're all right or letting security know or staying with them," Ferderber explains.

Many organizers are open and progressive in making their festivals safe, says Ferderber but suggests the few resisting to get onboard may notice less attendees.

 "I think we'll see an effect to their bottom line because young women are sharing their stories … and talking about where something happened to them and if the festival made them feel safe and where they're going to spend their money."

 Listen to this full segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal, Willow Smith, Ashley Mak and Julian Uzielli.