It's time we change tactics on drug safety at music festivals

Drug screening at music festivals could save lives

Drug use is a common part of the music festival experience.
Drug use is a common part of the music festival experience.
Credit: 
Vinch

It’s no secret that illegal drugs are sold, smoked, swallowed and snorted in large quantities at music festivals. Most major music gatherings feature clouds of pungent smoke and not-so furtive little baggies.

Drug use at Canadian music festivals, however, can lead to more than a good time — especially without services like drug screening or threat-free first aid to keep attendees safe.  

Two deaths and 13 hospitalizations occurred at the Veld Music Festival in Toronto in 2014. INK Entertainment, the organizer of the festival, partnered with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2015 to author a report on substance-related deaths at Canadian music festivals.

The report found that at least five youths died at Canadian music festivals between June and August 2014.

Current security practices are clearly not enough. Simply thinking that drugs are bad, and therefore should be banned, is no longer a sustainable way to protect young drug users. Instead, we should step off our moral high ground and find a more utilitarian solution.

Instead of attempting to stop drugs from being sold at all, some festivals now provide services that aim to reduce harm from the drugs that will be inevitably sold and consumed — and it’s an example other festivals should follow.

For instance, the August 2015 Shambhala Music Festival in BC offered free drug testing. The service allowed attendees to test purchased narcotics to determine whether they were laced with other, more harmful substances. Those who used the service could do so without fear of arrest.

Note that I wrote that the service tested for “more harmful substances.” I’m not suggesting that music festivals are areas where the law doesn’t apply. Illegal drugs are harmful in a number of ways and should be illegal.

But, clearly, years of education, policing and government-sponsored advertising campaigns haven’t changed people’s propensity for mind-altering substances, especially when surrounded by art.

Much of our musical canon was and is produced in drug-fueled states of mind. It’s hard to imagine what David Bowie would’ve been like without cocaine, or Bob Marley without marijuana, not to mention how different Pink Floyd would sound if Syd Barrett hadn’t been doing LSD.

The trend is by no means restricted to the good old days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. For instance, The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” is a not-so-subtle reference to the effects of narcotics.  

Art, music, literature and poetry all seem to interact with a shadier side of life. A 2008 article in The Guardian linked a heightening energy and cultural rebirth of the late 1960s artistic scene in London with the rise of one specific drug — ecstasy.

“For a scene to be genuinely innovative, it needs its own high-octane fuel. It needs that all-too-rare synthesis of right time, right place, right crowd, right music. And above all, it needs the right drug.”

It seems unlikely that the art scene will ever check itself into rehab, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to ensure that short-term fun at music festivals doesn’t turn into long-term consequences.

My home city, Burlington, hosts an annual summer music festival. It’s a big deal for a town where the most exciting summer event is typically the opening of a gelato place. But some people don’t just go big — they go overboard.

Walking home from the festival one night, I passed a line of teenage girls sitting on the curb and puking into the street. A police officer stood over them.

Later on, I witnessed an inebriated man walk into the middle of a large highway, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic.

And while neither of these incidents resulted in loss of life, there’s more we can do to prevent near misses from becoming fatalities.  

It’s not harsher penalties for drug possession or heightened security, though. More severe penalties only make people less likely to come forward if they’re in danger.

On the other hand, raising the level of security at festivals is like trying to mop up a flood with a hand towel. There are simply too many drug peddlers and users congregating to monitor them all.

So music festivals need to look for alternative methods to ensure their patrons’ safety, and that could mean bending the rules just a little.

The show will go on — but the bad trip doesn’t have to. 

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