Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2016.

Dude, What's In This Pill?

A British Columbia festival pioneers the practice of drug analysis in the name of attendee life safety


Festival experts consider the Shambhala Music Festival, an annual five-day electronic music jamboree held in the woods of British Columbia, to be the gold standard for harm-reduction effectiveness in North America. The festival offers everything from free water to mental-health counseling to a special group of campsites set aside for “sober camping,” all features that have helped minimize the number of deaths, injuries, and hospitalizations over the event’s 19-year history.

One of the most important—and controversial—of Shambhala’s harm-reduction efforts is the drug checking tent, which provides no-questions-asked analyses of attendees’ drugs, along with relevant safety and usage information. Located in the health and wellness zone, beside first aid and in the heart of the festival village, the tent is open 17 hours a day and run by a local nonprofit called AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS). It is staffed with 45 volunteers and three paid staff. Volunteers include nurses, councilors, and even government officials—the harm-reduction coordinator for British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority has volunteered, and this year so will an employee of the province’s Ministry of Health. Volunteers are trained onsite on protocols for testing, recording data, reagent handling, safety, and drug disposal. They also participate in a review of the disclaimers, education and prevention materials, and other harm-reduction services available, and how to handle emergency situations such as an assault or if an attendee collapses in the tent.

The drug testing tent contains six testing stations, and at times the line to get drugs tested can be more than 60 people long, with waits of two hours or more. After each test, volunteers inform the person who brought the substance of its main ingredient—unless the test is inconclusive—and in some cases will also be able to say what other substances or chemicals are present. Visitors are also given detailed information on the drug, such as how it reacts with other drugs, dosing information, and overdose signs. The volunteer logs the lab results into a database to be tracked for trends and sent to the medical team in the field. If a pattern emerges—if the green pills marked with the Playboy Bunny logo being sold as Ketamine are actually proving to be the more powerful dissociative drug methoxetamine, for instance—staff can alert medical services and festival attendees.

Video courtesy: The National YouTube Channel

The process allows for transparency that is critical to both festival attendees and medical staff, said Stacey Lock, the harm-reduction director at Shambhala. “If someone shows up at the medical tent in rough shape, we can get whatever is in their pockets and get it tested,” she said. “It helps provide the best medical service for that person. I really don’t know of any other festivals doing this.” Use of the service has increased 25 percent or more each year since it was launched in 2002. Last year, 3,224 pills and powders were tested onsite. One drug-related death has occurred over the festival’s 19 years, in 2012, according to Lock. A toxicology report on the deceased found morphine, diazepam, cocaine, MDMA, and GHB in the man’s body.

The tent is widely supported by the community and by the British Columbia government—the province recently granted ANKORS $25,000 to create a manual to help other events replicate drug checking practices. Even so, Chloe Sage, the director of ANKORS’ festival harm-reduction program, has heard from plenty of skeptics who question whether her organization is encouraging drug use, and whether it’s giving people a false sense of security.

Both questions miss the point, she said. “The fact is these services are accessed by people who have already made the decision to use drugs before they meet with us. We are there to meet them where they are—we don’t encourage people, and we don’t judge them,” Sage said, noting that all visitors must read a disclaimer stating in bold the risks of drugs. Visitors are also provided with informational materials. “Each contact we have is an opportunity to discuss with someone contemplating drug use before they take it about how they can stay safer,” Sage said. “If we just had a table with a bunch of pamphlets on it, we would never have the kind of contacts we have, but we are offering a service people want.”

A big reason drug checking is so important, advocates say, is the explosion of adulteration and new psychoactive substances over the last decade. By making minute chemical alterations, manufacturers and dealers can stay ahead of the law, selling potentially powerful substances that are not technically on the list of scheduled drugs. According to the drug-testing data compiled by ANKORS at Shambhala, about 30 percent of the substances people bring in are not what they had thought. Pills are the worst offenders; in 45 percent of the pills tested, the main ingredient has been misrepresented. About 90 percent of the cocaine tested last year had some adulterant added, and about a quarter of the samples were cut with levamisole, a cattle de-wormer.

In tests that reveal an unknown or excessively dangerous substance, or something different than what was thought, about one-third of attendees discard the drug at the tent’s disposal bins, according to ANKORS data. Sage said she suspects many more drugs are discarded after visitors leave the tent, or are returned to dealers.

“If we weren’t there, people would have no information at all about substances they are taking,” Sage said. “People think that those who use drugs don’t have brains, but the people who use drugs and come to our tent are very well aware of the risks and want information to keep themselves safe. They are so thankful and pleasant and helpful. We get a lot of love from festival guests."

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: ANKORS