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How Shambhala became a global pioneer in harm reduction

The 15,000-person electronic music festival is using a mass spectrometer to detect trace amounts of opioids this weekend.

Back in June, CE ran a stirring investigative op-ed and interview piece with Bunk Police’s founder, Adam Auctor. The goal was to highlight the politics of banning harm reduction programs at US-based festivals. Auctor organized historic protests at two of the US’s largest electronic music festivals, Bonnaroo and Electric Forest, to bring attention to detrimental RAVE Act legislation passed in 2002.

Across the North American border, on the Pacific Northwest side of the continent, British Columbia’s Shambhala Music Festival has been setting a global precedent for how festivals can implement harm reduction programs that are safe and legal. At the same time, it’s a program that is non-judgmental to its visitors without necessarily condoning illicit drug use. Their only goal is to save lives.

Spanning four days in the stunning Salmo River Ranch, Shambhala has always had an open policy about experimental drug use. Yet, it takes a stand as a “dry” festival when it comes to the use and sale of alcohol on the grounds. Curious though that may be, Shambhala has been making headlines for their cutting-edge harm reduction program.

Why cutting-edge? Because, when it comes to drug safety and prevention, it’s a program that values education over abstinence. The independently owned and operated festival offers a stark contrast to mid-sized and large-scale American festivals, many of whose drug prevention efforts have been brushed under the rug at best, and totalitarian at worse.

Prohibition doesn’t work. We need to understand that people are going to do things no matter what. No amount of security is going stop people from consuming stuff.” – Jimmy Bundschuh, Shambhala founder

Because Shambhala refuses to accept large corporate sponsorships, they don’t run into many of the challenges that festival promoters face in the US. “Our model is completely opposite to someone like Live Nation,” said Shambhala founder, Jimmy Bundschuh, in a recent Billboard Dance interview. “Really it’s opposite of the models of most festivals. There’s very few [independent festivals] like us. Maybe smaller ones, or Burning Man.”

Bundschuh has been building the festival’s infrastructure into his father’s cattle ranch for the past 22 years. It’s uniquely one-of-a-kind because the stages stay up year-round and he doesn’t have to worry about applying for expensive building permits, which usually require outside funding from corporate sponsorships. In fact, he says corporations don’t really come sniffing around because they know how “fiercely independent” they are.

Although it comes with its own set of unique challenges, being independent means having the autonomy to take a more open, progressive approach when it comes to drug policies — without all the corporate red tape. It’s a luxury that has lead to a decade-long partnership with ANKORS, a not-for-profit organization that heads up Shambhala’s harm reduction tent, a feature which is turning heads all around the world.

Harm reduction is as much about education as it is prevention,” says Chloe Sage, who’s been heading up ANKORS’ on-site efforts for years.

Shambhala’s harm reduction tent also provides informational brochures on drugs and drug combinations, condoms, clean snorting straws, and safe sex education. In addition, Shambhala provides a chill-out zone named the Sanctuary, which offers attendees a safe space to calm down and talk with trained medical professionals about their symptoms.

But the centerpiece of Shambhala’s program is the free drug testing services provided by ANKORS, who operates independently but in close cooperation with the festival’s emergency medical staff. The tent’s main focus is to offer low-tech pill/powder tests on-site, much like the reagent color testing kits that Bunk Police provides at their own risk of being kicked off festival grounds in the US.

The Opioid Crisis & the RAMAN spectrometer

Last year, Shambhala and ANKORS moved from being cutting-edge to a pioneering program with the introduction of a mass spectrometer, a device which cost the partnership effort $42,000 last year. Together, they raised money for two years and introduced the spectrometer during Shambhala’s 2018 installment.

It was a small price to pay for Shambhala attendees lives considering the opioid overdose epidemic that’s been taking place all over the US and Canada — thanks largely to fentanyl, which accounted for 73% of accidental opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2018, according to the Public Heath Agency of Canada, and also killing almost 20,000 US Americans in 2016 alone, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Considering how fentanyl has become a dark culprit in drug-related overdoses and deaths at festivals, with dealers not even knowing their product has been cut with the deadly synthetic opiate most times, Shambhala’s new device is quite literally a lifesaver.

This year, they are bringing the spectrometer back and cataloging every substance that passes underneath its scope. It’s a pioneering move considering Shambhala is the first festival in the world to use police- and hospital-grade technology in their drug testing efforts.

The RAMAN spectrometer is the first line of defense, along with the reagent color tests they’ve offered for years, says Sage. The device gives a reading of the two major substances present, but it can’t identify when a powder or pill is laced with a few grains of something else.

“With the RAMAN spectrometer, it’s hand-held and uses UV light, so you don’t have to touch the sample, you shoot a laser beam into it,” Chloe Sage told VICE. “Fentanyl is always going to [come] in trace amounts. This is why we’ve been trying to fundraise to get the technology to do this.”

The next line of defense is a fentanyl strip test. At Shambhala, folks take a few grains of their sample, dilute it in water, and the strip will show either one or two lines after a few minutes. One line means fentanyl is present, two lines means the test result is negative.

Prevention vs Reduction: The Rhetorical Battle of Words

Fourteen years ago, ANKORS expanded on its harm reduction mission to include drug overdose prevention. Previously, the organization was focused solely on halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Looking back, organizational advocates saw it as the natural next step in ANKORS’ evolution, especially once they began offering heroin addicts access to free and clean needles. Considering how dirty needles account for 9% of HIV diagnoses in the US, according to the CDC, and 14.3% in Canada, ANKORS decided that providing hypodermic needles was less a moralistic decision rooted in condemning all drug-use. Rather, it was an ethical decision that says drug prevention is more about reducing harmful drug practices. In other words, whether one thinks its right or wrong is beside the point. The rightness or wrongness goes out the window when someone is overdosing.

The service is still considered controversial to many because it blurs the lines between preventing and encouraging drug use. So we have to ask ourselves: what are we trying to prevent? Death or drug use altogether? It’s a complicated moral line to draw in the sand, but companies like ANKORS are acknowledging that drugs will never be abolished completely and, therefore, neither will drug use. They are looking to the past to look forward by acknowledging that prohibition and zero-tolerance just don’t work. They never have and they never will. So it becomes an even stickier ethical line to walk to have to admit that we can never fully eradicate the existence of drugs, but we do have the power to encourage safe drug use.

“Drugs are always going to be there. They exist. So why not acknowledge it and do something about it,” says Julie Soleil-Meeson, an ANKORS volunteer and harm reduction directer.

That’s why companies like ANKORS, and so many more, are attempting to define the fight in terms of “harm reduction” rather than prevention. It’s a rhetorical battle of words, but both sides can agree that that drug epidemic is a matter of life and death. Harm prevention, therefore, becomes more about harm reduction — reducing the presence of fatal drugs, reducing misnomers and miseducation about drugs, reducing overdoses, and ultimately, reducing deaths.

Even US cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are following suit on the harm reduction front. They are setting up shops that provide users with naloxone (the opioid overdose antidote) and sterile, supervised injection sites. In Bangore, Maine, there’s a group called the Church of Safe Injection that has been handing out clean drug-using supplies for years despite it being illegal to do so in Maine.

“I believe that there is not just like a moral duty to violate unjust laws, but in this circumstance a spiritual duty,” said one of the Bangor volunteers to NPR. He wished to remain anonymous for legal reasons.

The Church of Safe Injection operates much like US companies like Bunk Police, who are forced to operate in the shadows for fear of persecution, but who see the moral obligation to provide life-saving services. It also strikes a chord with the Shambhala harm reduction volunteers, who’ve admitted to feeling like they would be arrested at times for their work.

If Shambahala can do it, why can’t US festivals?

For one, the politics are very different. Not just on the governmental level, but on the cultural level too. Drug overdose statistics are very different in Canada than they are in the US. Decriminalization and legalization efforts are different as well, although both countries are making strides towards more progressive policies.

When you throw in the legal risks associated with insurance companies, both the US and Canada deal with the same issues. In order for organizers to take out insurance policies to cover a range of issues — from structural collapses and inclement weather to crowd stampedes and accidental death and dismemberment — there are often times legal clauses in place that prevent harm reduction organizations on site.

Secondly, major festival promoters are either lazy or they simply don’t care. Big box live music corporations are driven by profit logic rather than the ethics of social justice. They remain financially covered from being sued for overdose deaths when they ban harm reduction organizations altogether. At the end of the day, what companies like Live Nation and AEG have proven time and again is that they only care about is profit margin, not human lives. In fact, its what makes them such easy villains. It’s a numbers game for them — but in dollars, not death toll count.

“It should be up to them to go about spearheading the movement to change these laws in Washington,” says founder and CEO of Bunk Police, Adam Auctor. “They’re the ones who’re heavily affected. They’re the ones that are throwing these huge events where people are dying.”

What can you do?

Support independent, boutique festivals over corporatized big box festivals run by Live Nation, AEG Presents, and others. Smaller-scale and mid-sized festivals usually have more liberal drug policies because they aren’t bogged down by insurance companies and corporate politics. In fact, that’s what makes Shambhala such a unique boutique experience. It’s the community, the culture, and the magic of the Farm that keep people coming back year after year. Not to mention that fact that they are alive with beating hearts to be able to do so.

Photo credit: Cyk Media.

Sources: Billboard Dance, MixMag, VICE, NPR.