Canadian Music Festivals Still Can’t Test Pills for Fentanyl

In BC, where overdose deaths are up 74 percent, several festivals offer free drug testing – but fentanyl testing equipment's not ready yet.

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Jul 17 2016, 10:40pm


Fentanyl, like that pictured above disguised as fake OxyContin pills, has been one of the major substances at the centre of Canada's opioid crisis. Photo via Twitter

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Festival season is now in full swing, which means at this very moment there are thousands of people camped out in sweltering heat, surrounded by walls of perpetually full porta-potties, likely buying pills and powders from total strangers, and definitely making decisions of wide-ranging quality.

Party organizers know this and generally don't want people to die, as a few kids seem to every year. So a few festivals are choosing to offer free pill testing, to give these people a better idea of what's in their drugs. In most cases this is carried out by a handful of harm reduction non-profit organizations, using cheap reagent kits that can test for 15 or so different substances.

If you've seen these tests in action at a festival before, you probably know the set-up is pretty simple. They'll drip a little bit of a testing solution onto a sample of your drugs, and see what colour shows up. In some cases they can tell you if it's cut with something else, but mostly it just confirms whether one drug—ecstasy, coke, ketamine, whatever—is actually in there.

Unfortunately this doesn't work for fentanyl, which happens to be the current focus of most drug hysteria in Canada. The drug news outlets describe as "50 times more potent than heroin, and 100 times stronger than morphine" has been causing a record-breaking number of overdose deaths in many parts of the country.

In British Columbia, where the government has declared a public health emergency over fentanyl, drug overdoses across the province are up 74 percent over last year. So far in 2016 a total of 371 people have died, and fentanyl has been detected in 60 percent of cases. The latest numbers from the coroner's service show another small uptick between May to June.

More often fentanyl gets passed off as other opiates, but it's been known to show up in party drugs including MDMA and coke. So it sucks that even the most advanced festival pill testers in the country won't be testing for fentanyl this season.

"It's a shame this summer and it's scary for lots of us," Garrett Crawford of the new-ish harm reduction outfit Karmik, which is testing pills at a few BC festivals this year, told VICE. "A few of us in our organization have lost friends and family members."

Crawford says a close friend of his died a few months ago when fentanyl showed up in what he thought was something else. "It's really heartbreaking for us, but it just reaffirms how important it is to provide harm reduction."

The trouble with fentanyl is it's so potent, so concentrated, that none of the cheap testing offered at festivals can reliably detect it. "One pill will have such a miniscule amount, it's very unlikely you're going to detect that with a reagent kit," said Crawford.

The equipment needed to detect those tiny grains of fentanyl is expensive, even for the non-profits that have been running harm reduction booths since 2002. The West Kootenay group Aids Network Outreach and Support Society, or ANKORS, found that out when they launched a crowdfunding campaign last month aiming to buy a "mass spectrometer." The group, which runs several harm reduction projects including pill testing at Shambhala Music Festival, found the fancy lab tech can cost as much as a quarter million.

"The new machine that we're looking for is going to be very exact. It'll tell you every single substance that is in that pill," Stacey Lock, harm reduction director for Shambhala, told VICE. Lock says even mobile versions of the technology range in the tens of thousands.

Shambhala is only a few weeks away, and so far ANKORS has raised just over $10,000 of the $20,000 needed to buy the fentanyl-testing equipment. But Lock says even if they raise enough money, they won't have the machine up and running, or the volunteers trained, by the time the party gates open.

"It's going to be next year, to be honest. We started a little late in the game," Lock told VICE. "This year we're going to be educating our folks about how to respond to potential overdoses. Our outreach team is going to be trained in doing naloxone injections to prevent overdoses. And the other big things—artificial respiration, putting people in recovery position."

The festival and ANKORS have taken a bit of heat for not getting their shit together in time. At least one commenter called it "unacceptable." Police called it "scary and terrifying."

For the few other organizations that do this work, that haven't raised any money, even testing by next year is an unlikely option. Crawford of Karmik, which is running a "sanctuary" space at Pemberton Festival this weekend, says they're waiting for the price to come down.

"We need to bring down the cost because reagent tests have their limitations, they can only do so much," he said. "We really want this to become affordable, because if fentanyl is what's killing most of the people, then our drug testing is pretty much useless if we can't test for that."

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