Pubdate: Wed, 10 Jun 2015
Source: Nelson Star (CN BC)
Copyright: 2015 Black Press
Author: Will Johnson


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."

Making headlines

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.'"

Festival culture

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.

Scott agreed.

"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."

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