Shambhala festival leads Canada with drug checking

Jun 23, 2022

A recent article published by Kamloops News and Business Directory discussed the drug testing services available at the West Kootenay music festival Shambhala, which have been at the forefront of implementing key harm reduction strategies for festival-goers.

Since 2004, Shambhala organizers have worked with AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS), a B.C.-based non-profit to provide harm reduction services for individuals who use drugs. In contrast to many other festivals, Shambhala is held on private land, which has allowed organizers to bring in ANKORS and provide free and anonymous drug-testing services for all event participants.

“It took a long time to get the courage… the festival was really worried about what this would look like, if we were enabling and encouraging drug use and that’s not what drug checking is about, it’s about responding to risks that are there,” said Chloe Sage is the drug checking project lead for the outreach society and a harm reduction coordinator with Interior Health. According to Sage, other festivals had attempted to implement drug checking services, but companies threatened to cut their insurance. She also added that one of the festival’s founders helped reach out to the community to establish harm reduction. “We were the only ones doing this at festivals in Canada for a very long time,” Sage said.

Since 2018, ANKORS has also employed a mass spectrometer at Shambhala, allowing the drug-testing services available to examine a larger variety of substances. In addition, during the festival, there is a space provided for those who want to remain sober throughout the festival, as well as a safe space where women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, a space called The Sanctuary is provided for festival participants if they have a bad drug trip, in addition to outreach workers placed throughout the festival.

According to the festival’s most recent video on harm reduction, Shambhala’s guide to drug checking is currently being used worldwide, with Shambhala’s effective approach to harm reduction gaining increased attention due to the worsening opioid crisis in the province.

The province now recommends festivals organizers to implement on-site harm reduction services, including drug checking, while it has become easier for festivals to get an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to run a supervised consumption site.

This year, Shambhala will be held from 22 to 25 July after a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, ANKORS will also be providing drug checking services at Bass Coast, a music festival held in Merritt, B.C.

“There’s a lot of new people using the service, that’s one of the successes that we see. Also, people lining up for two hours shows that it’s a service that people need,” said Sage, adding that the ANKORS team also comes from the community and understands the needs of festival attendees. “Festivals are getting prepared in terms of harm reduction,” she said.