Tainted Drugs at Music Festivals a Major Concern for Canadians: VICE Survey

Over 4,600 people responded to our questionnaire about substance use and harm reduction at concerts.

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Jul 10 2017, 2:59pm

Photo by John Valenzuela/The Sun/AP

In The Festival Harm Reduction Project series, we examine drug use at music festivals and clubs across the globe, and explore what artists, organizers, harm reduction groups, and concert-goers are doing to make nightlife safer.

According to an exclusive survey conducted by THUMP and VICE, many Canadians attending music festivals this summer are concerned about harmful substances in their drugs.

In April, we ran an anonymous questionnaire asking people to share information about their experiences with drugs and harm reduction practices at concerts. Of the over 4,600 people surveyed across the country, 66.3 percent said they were worried about their drugs being contaminated, and 81.3 percent said they wanted to see testing services made more widely available at festivals and events. These findings seem even more vital in light of North America's ongoing opioid crisis, which shows no signs of slowing down in 2017.

"We have a huge risk of ten, 20, 50, 100 people dying at festivals this year," Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told VICE Canada. "Hopefully it won't happen, but fentanyl has changed the game in terms of the toxicity on the market."

Though checking of drugs at festivals exists in a legal grey area, and the scientific community remains divided as to the reliability of consumer-grade kits, our results suggest there's high demand for these services at festivals. Below are our biggest takeaways from the survey. THUMP will continue to report on harm reduction efforts in upcoming months, and look out for a VICE Canada feature on what festivals are doing to prepare for the threat of drug-related overdoses.


All illustrations by Emma O'Neill

The four most represented provinces were (in order) Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec, which also happen to have the largest populations in Canada. Of the respondents, slightly under 60 percent identified as female. Over 63 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24 years old.

It's important to note here that people who use drugs at festivals are more likely to volunteer for a survey about drug use than those who don't. Of those who said they hadn't, 43.7 percent answered "yes" or "maybe" when asked if they'd take drugs at a concert this summer.

In a study by Health Canada reported by Global News, 2016 saw a 43 percent increase over the previous year in the number of street drugs testing positive for fentanyl across the country. Of the 2,503 samples submitted to Health Canada by Canadian law enforcement agencies, the illicit drugs most frequently found to contain fentanyl were heroin, ANPP (4-anilino-n-phenethylpiperidine, an intermediate drug in the synthesis of fentanyl), cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Of those who responded to THUMP's survey, only 21.7 percent said they'd buy from someone they just met—a finding harm reduction expert Julie-Soleil Meeson said speaks to a greater public awareness today of the dangers of tainted substances. "I would have been surprised five years ago," said Meeson, who is the director of Quebec women's substance abuse prevention organization Elixir, and also works with non-profit harm reduction group GRIP Montreal. "But I'm happy to see now that they're concerned. It confirms they're afraid of their drugs."

Other substances survey takers reported using included cocaine, mushrooms, GHB, new psychoactive substances (MDA, MXE, 2C series), benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin), codeine, and oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet).

While at least 2,458 Canadians died from an opioid-related overdose in 2016 according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, our results suggested that very few people use heroin and fentanyl at festivals (0.7 and 0.8 percent respectively). Additionally, where people did report using heroin at festivals, Meeson pointed out that it might be used for medical purposes to treat addiction, as opposed to recreational ones.

Though paying a visit to the medical tent is crucial in the event of a drug-related emergency, it would appear that many Canadians are still hesitant about using these services at festivals, likely for fear of being stigmatized or facing legal repercussions. But in May, the federal government passed the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act into law, which provides those who call 911 for themselves or another person in the case of an overdose immunity from simple drug possession charges. "That helps a lot," said Meeson. "People might feel more comfortable approaching paramedics since they can't be judged."

Other forms of harm reduction practiced by concert-goers included using a buddy system, ingesting small doses of drugs, not mixing substances, using chill-out tents/areas, and drug-checking services at festivals where available.

Naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) works by attaching to the same brain receptors that receive heroin and other opioids, and blocking those compounds for 30 to 60 minutes to reverse the respiratory depression that can result from an opioid overdose. In Canada, these take-home kits are available at pharmacies without a prescription, and many provinces offer them for free. While not all experts agree on their effectiveness, an increasing number of venues across the nation now carry them, and provincial health services programs have stepped up their efforts to promote their use by civilians.

A staggering majority of survey takers told THUMP that they'd take advantage of substance checking at festivals if those services were available. Other suggestions given to improve their concert-going experiences included "amnesty bins" (containers where drugs can anonymously be dropped off before entering festivals), designated areas for doing drugs, free water/extra refill stations, and less aggressive, gender-equal security.

While GRIP Montreal and others are putting continued pressure on festivals to offer testing services, there are currently no provincial or federal laws mandating it. Canadian courts have yet to make a definitive ruling on whether workers or volunteers at these stations can be held criminally responsible for aiding or abetting possession, though most organizations that practice drug checking do not touch substances themselves as a precautionary measure.

"We have to create a context where [festivals] are criminally negligent if they don't have these services there—we're kind of in the opposite [position] right now, where they're seen as negligent if they do have them there since they are so-called 'encouraging' drug use," said MacPherson. "There should be a baseline all festivals have to put in place, just as they have to [in order to get a permit] with washrooms or water or food."

Additional reporting by Allison Tierney.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.