Shambhala Music Festival visitors may choose to experiment during their five-day stay and question whether that pill is, in fact, a safe bet.
But the festival doesn’t turn a blind eye to drug use and instead leads with a strong focus on harm reduction and safety.
“(We’re) not about condoning or supporting drug use—it’s about understanding that people are going to do what they’re going to do—and our goal is for them to be as safe as possible,” says Britz Robbins of the Shambhala Music Festival.
Drug education and pill testing is a branch of harm reduction, provided by ANKORS for over 13 years, and is considered an important resource for the over 10,000 people who make the Salmo River Ranch home for five days.
“If a substance tests as ‘unknown’ or as something they weren’t expecting, we commonly see people throwing that substance out,”she adds. “Test results are also displayed for the public on a chart, alerting attendees of the physical appearance of any pills in which the composition doesn’t match what it’s being sold as. This allows attendees to make safer, more informed decisions.”
Festival goers may also use Sanctuary, a quiet place to escape the party chaos, the Women’s Safe Space and Camp Clean Beat, which is a clean and sober camp that offers three AA/NA-style meetings per day and a supportive environment for recovering users.
There are roaming teams for Options for Sexual Health, which shares information and condoms, and an outreach team that spreads word of all harm-reduction programs found on the grounds.
Safety is a year-round topic and is in full swing today, as cars roll into town.
Last year, an army of 160 medical professionals managed the site while this year it’s shaping up to be another strong wall. Festival organizers want to ensure the celebration of electronic music is safe and preferably contained to the 500-acre ranch and do so by offering several branches of harm reduction, security and a medical team.
An on-site medical building houses 14 beds for monitored care, treatment and observation though minor incidents are generally handled in chairs set up in two four-by-four-metre tents next to the main building.
Dr. Brendan Munn, who’s also the BC Interior’s mass gathering medicine representative for the University of British Columbia, acts as medical director.
He says the most common visits to the medical building are for blisters, cuts, sprains and other small wounds centred around lack of adequate foot care. Such minor accounts make up about 90 per cent of visits while just over nine per cent are of more serious nature and include dehydration, nausea and vomiting, allergic reactions and decreased levels of consciousness.
Drug use exists and the festival is prepared to deal with patients who have taken too much or a mixed concoction that has knocked them off their feet.
“Overdoses make up a minority of the cases seen and treated at (Shambhala Music Festival) Medical,” says Dr. Munn. “We are not able to compare with previous years but have been collecting comprehensive data that will hopefully give us more insight into these numbers in the future. Overdoses are managed in the same way as they would be in any emergency department, with substance-specific treatment and referral or transfer to a hospital in cases that outstrip the resources found on site.”
Shambhala’s medical team (doctors, nurses, paramedics and Occupational First Aid Level 3s) treats most patients at the ranch but the odd time hospital transfers are made. A total of 13 people left the grounds last year over a seven-day period, which is down from 19 in 2013.
Jane Cusden, acute health services director for Interior Health Authority, says about half of out-patients make their way to Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital while the others are sent to Nelson.
Communication is fed between the hospital’s direct line, ensuring emergency staff knows what’s coming their way.
The Trail hospital begins its preparation by attending planning meetings with festival organizers and making adjustments to staffing to support an influx of patients.
“We put on extra staff (one or two) and security on site,” she said.“We’ve never had any problems in the past, fortunately, but sometimes there are problems with getting back to Shambhala and also when you know there is a drug-based event happening, then it’s just a precaution really.”
Cusden said there isn’t a large increase in patients, and it can be difficult to measure numbers from a regular day and a festival day.
“We can get a really busy manic day when there is not a Shambhala, and there is no reason,” she said. “And then you might have a busier day with Shambhala, and then you might get a quieter day, it’s really not easy to profess what extra patients we’re going to get.”
BC Ambulance Services may share a similar sentiment if last year’s average transfer statistics are any indication.
In 2014, paramedics moved four people from Trail (a community of less than half the population of the festival) to the hospital during a 24-hour period. While the festival sent two transfers per 24 hours from the ranch.
The police (Salmo detachment) also have a close working relationship and routinely come out to the grounds for walkthroughs or to respond when arrests have to be made.
Sgt. Darren Oelke of the Trail and Greater District Detachment said his busy time is when the festival ends and thousands of people are released from the grounds.
“We have members go there (Salmo) and work extra shifts and increase the policing, as do all the detachments in the area provide extra resources and highway patrol units,” he said. “There’s a little bit of an increase at times for service, not necessarily with crimes, but sometimes with just calls of service with more people in town, lots of drug use, sometimes the hospital gets busier, the emergency and the Daly.”
The festival is proud of its relationships that it continues to foster, counting harm reduction as a main ingredient to a safe party.
“Summer festivals have risks; some of them are expected and some are not” Robbins and team notes. “The same goes for driving, skiing and going to bars. Like all ER visits, people don’t plan to end up there, and providing the information to give people the best chances of avoiding harm plus the ability to care for those who don’t avoid it are equally important.”
Early entrance began Wednesday, with regular ticket holders making their way in on Friday.
Shambhala started on a Labour Day weekend back in 1998, where some-500 people gathered for a party that showcased local art and music. Now in its 18th year, the festival attracts world renowned DJs and artists and an energetic group of people ready to surrender to “Shambhalove.”