Saskatchewan festival offered first illicit drug testing to attendees

Sep 2, 2022

Ness Creek Music Festival that took place in July was the first Saskatchewan music festival to offer a drug checking service as the number of overdose-related deaths in the province grows.

In his interview with Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Keith Bowering, organizer of the checking services, said they screened 20 samples in a day. He added that the service could only offer drug-testing strips that screen illicit drugs for fentanyl and benzodiazepines, and did not have the capabilities of more specialized testing services that can offer a breakdown of what a sample actually contains.

“We have not been doing it for 20 years. We do not have five spectrometers on loan. We do not have an army of people doing testing,” Bowering said. It was the first time illicit drug tests were legally carried out at a music festival in Saskatchewan. In addition, Bowering and volunteers also provided training to festival attendees on how to use naloxone, a medication that can help to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

In addition, Bowering mentioned that the low number of tests carried out was due to a time constraint, since his team only received federal approval for the testing services after the four-day festival had started. Accordingly, the drug checking service was announced at Ness Creek’s main stage that evening, and samples were screened the next day. The delay resulted from the bureaucratic process carried out between the provincial and federal governments, which was required for Bowering to receive a legal exemption to run the tests.

Bowering had applied for an exemption as part of Prairie Harm Reduction, a Saskatoon non-profit that created the province’s first safe injection site.

While the Saskatchewan provincial government initially did not approve Bowering’s request, Health Canada approved the request from Prairie Harm Reduction, giving Bowering permission to test drugs at Ness Creek and at the upcoming Electric Sky Music Festival, an electronic dance music event held in the same location.

“(Urgent Public Health Needs Sites) are established in areas where there is an urgent public health need related to drug overdoses and are intended to address a short term need,” said a statement released by Health Canada.

Data released by the Saskatchewan coroners service demonstrates that 425 Sask. residents died of drug-related overdose in 2021, compared to 327 in 2020.

Bowering hopes to continue to provide testing services again next year at Ness Creek and other Saskatchewan festivals, as well as to borrow one of the mass spectrometers being purchased by Saskatchewan’s government, which can provide a more thorough analysis of drug samples.