Fentanyl was more prevalent in drugs at last year’s Shambhala Music Festival than initially reported, according to a new study.
An upcoming paper co-authored by the Interior Health Authority and ANKORS will reveal over two dozen drug tests detected fentanyl at the annual event near Salmo, as opposed to the nine positive results that were initially made public.
The exact number of results won’t be revealed until the paper, which has been submitted for review in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, has been published.
Chloe Sage is ANKORS’ hep-c project co-ordinator and worked on the upcoming paper along with Dr. Silvina Mema of Interior Health. She told the Star that the fentanyl, an opioid, is not usually mixed in with stimulants such as MDMA, ketamine or cocaine, which are the most popular drugs used at the festival.
Sage said she was surprised fentanyl was found by the event’s drug-testing team, and thinks accidental contamination is one of the likely causes.
“The problem is even with a small percentage, when you’ve got a population of people who are opioid naive, meaning they don’t have a tolerance for it, it really is a death sentence if they accidentally do get fentanyl in their body,” said Sage.
Drug testing is a service provided at Shambhala in a partnership between the event, which pays for supplies and two team captains, and ANKORS, which supplies three staff members. A total of 57 people conducted 2,724 tests over three days last August. Over 200 festival goers were also trained in how to administer naloxone.
Last year was the first time the team tested for fentanyl, which was responsible for 81 per cent of the over 1,420 overdose deaths in B.C. in 2017.
Festival goers only need to submit what Sage described as a grain of their drug for it to be tested. She said not all test results are posted to a real-time board at the event, which accounts for the discrepancy between the first and latest fentanyl figures.
If fentanyl was found, Sage’s team alerts the person who brought in the sample, talks to them about the risks of taking it and offers safe disposal.
“We had lots of people choose to dispose when they find it’s not the answer that they’re looking for,” she said.
Of the drugs examined, the fourth most common was classified as unknown by testers. Sage thinks that’s because drugs that are found on the ground are being brought in for testing.
“They are finding stuff on the ground and bringing it in to test it, which we are very happy about because if they weren’t, there’s a possibility they could take them and not know what it is,” said Sage.
“And the dosage of one drug is totally different from another. So you could be overdosing by taking too much if you don’t know what it is.”
Sage said no opioid overdoses or deaths occurred at the festival, although that doesn’t account for stimulant types of overdoses.
Sage said she did not know the total number of overdoses at the event, but that gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), which is used to treat narcolepsy, was responsible for the majority of them.
“GHB is very, very dose sensitive,” said Sage. “If you take too much, you can actually go unconscious and stop breathing because it’s a depressant, like alcohol and opioids. Naloxone doesn’t work on it. When people mix GHB with alcohol, it’s even worse and it’s much harder to respond to a GHB overdose when they’ve taken alcohol as well.”
Drug testing at music festivals is not common in Canada. Sage, who recently returned from a drug-testing conference in Vancouver, said although the topic has been discussed for years it is only now being seriously considered.
“It’s very difficult. Some people have tried to get festivals to do it and then their insurance companies pulled out…,” she said. “It’s happening, it’s definitely happening.”
ANKORS also conducts on-site drug testing at its office, located at 101 Baker St. The service is free and confidential.