When ANKORS team leader Chloe Sage first started delivering harm reduction services at Shambhala Music Festival in 2001, there were a lot of misconceptions about what exactly she was trying to accomplish.
“It was a real ‘keep your head down’ situation. We had a few hundred people come to our booth and say ‘wow, I’m glad you’re here’, but there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding about why it was necessary,” she said.
Their efforts were humble at first — a small educational booth was set up to distribute pamphlets and encourage safe partying.
But as the festival ballooned to over 11,000 ticket sales, so too did the festival’s harm reduction strategy, which is now the most ambitious approach in North America, with over 40 trained ANKORS volunteers on the ground each year, alongside a harm reduction team of over 200.
Now encompassing medical, security, outreach and sexual health services, the integrated approach is considered a best practice worldwide and has inspired interest from a number of other festivals.
“Now we’re like one spoke in a wheel of services set up to support guests at Shambhala,” said Sage. “We used to work as silos, and we didn’t communicate with medical or security, but now we all work together.”
After a spate of overdoses and deaths at music festivals in North America last year, harm reduction has been in the headlines and festivals looking to address the issue are increasingly looking to Shambhala’s example.
ANKORS executive director Cheryl Dowden said they’ve been inundated in recent years with requests for information and guidance.
“For instance, we just got an email from Bass Coast the other day, asking if we could send a team down,” said Dowden. And according to her, that’s a good thing for everybody.
“In order for us to be really effective it’s important for everyone to be doing this across the country. If we want to have early warning systems that we can share festival to festival, it’s the only way to go.”
Currently, she said, they operate in a sort of vacuum.
“Right now we’re the only one, but if there was a team at Bass Coast we could see ahead of time what kind of drugs are coming up and then plan for it.”
But they can’t do that right now: “Every year it’s a surprise.”
At a January conference in Vancouver that brought together stakeholders, festival owners, government policy makers and security firms, Sage said those present were shocked to hear about their integrated approach.
“One security guy, when we shared our approach and how we all communicate and work together, stood up and said ‘I’ve always seen [harm reduction teams] as the opposite of me. It didn’t even occur to me we could work together.’”
Shambhala communications director Mitchell Scott said the recognition they’ve received comes after years of hard work.
“We didn’t go into this trying to be leaders,” he said. “It’s one of those things where everybody’s proud, but nobody’s resting on their laurels. There’s always room to improve.”
Scott shadowed the medical team last year and was amazed but what he saw.
“They go in expecting the worst, and being prepared for that.”
Scott said harm reduction is a huge priority for the owners, though it hasn’t always been popular or understood.
“I think it comes down to this want, especially from Jimmy (Bundschuh) and the senior level management, that it’s paramount to run as professional a festival behind the scenes as possible.”
He said they experienced push-back to their strategies at first, but now they’re catching on.
“That level of honesty was risky at first, but in the end we’re not hiding and we’re actively going out there to make the festival experience as safe as we possibly can.”
He said educating festival-goers is the key piece.
“Festival-goers have really embraced the culture of taking care of each other,” he said, noting that strangers will often go out of their way to help those in distress at Shambhala.
“That’s the coolest part, is we’re all here to look out for each other. We’re encouraging people to let their guard down, be free. And we want everyone to be as safe as possible.”
Start Small, Take It Easy
As part of their harm reduction work, ANKORS recently released the results of its 2013 survey in a report entitled Start Small, Take it Easy.
During Shambhala that year, ANKORS completed 182 questionnaires with guests over five days.
“In total, 35 substances were reported used at any time at the festival: 23 listed on the questionnaire and 12 others written in, including ‘designer drugs’, pharmaceuticals used without a prescription and psychoactive herbal products,” the report says.
They found cannabis use was “ubiquitous” while alcohol use was also prevalent despite the festival’s no-alcohol policy.
According to the report, 77.4 per cent of those surveyed used marijuana while in attendance, while 47.3 per cent used alcohol, ecstasy and MDMA.
That was followed by ketamine at 33.5 per cent, mushrooms at 23.8 per cent, cocaine at 22.9 per cent and LSD at 20.3 per cent.
“This high level of substance use is typical of music festivals and consistent with 2009 survey results. Statistical tests also find no difference in substance use between first-timers and festival veterans,” reads the report.
The authors were thrilled to see their strategies being embraced.
“Both first time and more seasoned festival-goers are accessing our services, and taking responsibility for themselves, wanting to be more informed.”
And when their pill-testing comes back with a negative result, users were quick to take advantage of their disposal services.
Dowden believes the fact the consumption of these substances led to only seven hospital visits that year proves the effectiveness of their approach.
“That’s a track record that didn’t come easy, and there’s always a bit of luck involved. We don’t want to brag about it, but a lot has been learned over the years.”
In Shambhala’s 18 years, there has been only one death linked to drug use, in 2012.
Racing to keep up
Unfortunately, each year the team finds itself racing to keep up with the latest drug trends.
Last year the new drug was methoxetamine, which they hadn’t heard of until festival-goers told them about it.
But Sage is more concerned about fentanyl, which in the last year has caused four overdoses and three deaths in the West Kootenay that she knows of.
“That’s what everybody’s dying of right now. They think it’s like morphine or heroin, but it can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine.”
Proper pill-testing on site will ensure nobody mistakenly takes this dangerous drug, or any other tainted substances.
“The way it works now, the medical team can come to our tent with a patient’s sample and say ‘can you test this? We don’t understand the symptoms they’re displaying.’ This basic testing enables us to say ‘okay, this is the one we’re dealing with.’”
Sage said the festival would love to eventually invest in a spectrometer, which can complete much more thorough testing. But it’s currently prohibitively expensive.
ANKORS is currently recruiting and training volunteers to join their team.
“The more people do it, the more comfortable festivals will be. I really want to give props to Shambhala for taking that initial punch, because I know it was scary for them, but it’s really gone in their favour.”
Sage said the media has noticed their efforts, and a recent magazine article praised them. “It said ‘I’m heading out there because it sounds like these guys really care about their people’. And really, we do.”
For more information visit ankorsvolunteer.com.