B.C. music festival visitors more likely to use drug-checking services: Interior Health

The Bass Coast and Shambhala electronic music festivals each host drug-checking services. An Interior Health report shows a rise in festival goers having their drugs checked, especially if they bought drugs at the festival. Photo: Bass Coast

Festival goers are more likely to buy drugs at a venue and have them tested prior to use if a drug-checking service is available.

An Interior Health report released last week using data from last year’s Shambhala Music Festival south of Nelson and Bass Coast Festival in Merritt found 65 per cent of drugs on-site were purchased at the venues. The report, which is based on a survey of users who visited the service, also notes a 40 per cent increase in testing if drugs were acquired at the festivals.

Interior Health’s drug checking lead Antoine Marcheterre believes a cultural shift has taken place. Drug checking, he said, has become an accepted and stigma-free part of the festival experience.

“It’s kind of obvious that if drug checking is available on-site, it’s free and if it’s in the context that is non-judgmental without risks or repercussions from law enforcement, people will use the service.”

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The report’s stats suggest Marcheterre is right. A survey of users found 91.3 per cent of people who didn’t know what was in their drugs had them tested before using, while 65.6 per cent opted for testing even if they thought they knew what the drug was.

Chloe Sage has been ANKORS’ team lead for drug checking at Shambhala since 2009. She said the free testing isn’t just a service, but also a draw for people who attend the event and want to use drugs safely.

“I think drug testing has become part of Shambhala as the culture of the festival, absolutely. When they write in our comments book, people talk about choosing that festival because of that service, which I thought was pretty amazing.”

Marcheterre said in one instance a sample that a user thought was MDMA was actually Down, which is an opioid mix of fentanyl and benzodiazepines.

“So that was a case where this person said, ‘Hey I would totally have used that if I didn’t have access to your service.’”

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The Interior Health report comes on the eve of B.C.’s three-year trial that decriminalizes possession of up to 2.5 grams of street drugs for residents 18 and older as of Jan. 31. Over 10,000 people have died of toxic drug poisoning in B.C. since fentanyl was introduced into the street supply in 2016, but fentanyl was almost non-existent in the festival drugs that were tested.

A total of 3,868 samples were analyzed using FTIR spectroscopy, testing strips and, for LSD samples, Ehrlich reagent. Opioids accounted for just 0.2 per cent of drugs identified by testing, which Marcheterre said makes sense given users aren’t typically looking to become drowsy at festivals. Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, was found in just five samples.

The most common drugs purchased at festivals and brought to drug checkers were the empathogen MDMA and the dissociative ketamine. MDMA was the most prevalent ingredient found in drugs that were tested, well ahead of ketamine and cocaine.

Ninety per cent of drugs tested ended up being what users thought they were, but there were exceptions. Only 49.7 per cent of MDA tested included just the expected active substance, while 24.8 per cent had no trace of MDA and instead had either a different active substance, an inactive one or both.

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Marcheterre believes there is little overlap between street dealers and people who sell drugs at festivals, the latter of whom he said appear to be more cautious with allowing other ingredients to contaminate their product.

“I think it’s just like worlds that don’t meet too much, where somebody who sells opioids for example will not necessarily sell LSD and MDMA at the festivals. They’re not the same people and the same supply I think.”

Harm reduction services aren’t limited to drug checking at Bass Coast and Shambhala. Both festivals offer first aid, rest stations and sexual health supplies.

Sage cautioned against the idea that festivals promote drug use by including testing services.

“Remember that drugs can get in anywhere they want. They get through the borders, they get into prisons, they get into festivals around what we do to try to stop them. And this is why harm reduction is important, because we can’t stop them.”

The Interior Health report can be read at https://drugchecking.ca/2022-festival-infographic/.

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