Moral Low Ground


Evolve Festival in Jeopardy Over Free Drug Testing

Revelers at a music festival. (Eva Rinaldi/Flickr Creative Commons)

Revelers at a music festival. (Eva Rinaldi/Flickr Creative Commons)

A popular Canadian music festival may not take place this weekend after losing its liability insurance over a decision to offer attendees free drug testing services in a bid to prevent medical emergencies.

Earlier this week, CBC reported the Evolve Music and Awareness Festival, a three-day affair featuring 125 acts beginning July 9 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, would become the first music event in the Maritime province to offer free drug testing.

The testing kits, which analyze the contents and purity of illicit drugs including MDMA (‘Molly’, ecstasy), LSD (acid) and amphetamine (speed), are part of a harm reduction policy which recognizes that festival-goers will often consume drugs, and aims to minimize the potential negative consequences of use. Festival attendees who wish to have their drugs tested provide a small sample to staff, who will double-check the substances using Marquis reagant testing.

“Last year we had, over three days, six ambulances were sent—about two per day. Three of them were kids who had done a drug that wasn’t the drug that they thought that it was,” Evolve producer Jonas Colter told the CBC.

Although no one has ever died from drug use at Evolve, drug-related medical emergencies have strained the capabilities of local emergency responders in past years.

Colter noted that although no one has died at Evolve, overdose deaths have occurred at other festivals across North America and that revelers should avoid purchasing illegal drugs from strangers.

“I’m assuming that if they bring it themselves, hopefully they’re getting the drugs from someone they semi-trust,” he told the CBC. “When you’re buying it at a festival, from a stranger, you really don’t know what you’re getting.”

Harm reduction, long advocated and practiced by groups including DanceSafe and Bunk Police—both of which sell home drug testing kits, is a proven approach to reducing some of the dangers associated with drugs, although critics claim it encourages drug use and keeps abusers stuck in the rut of addiction. In 2000, Portugal decriminalized the possession of all illegal drugs and implemented some of the world’s most progressive prevention, treatment and harm reduction measures. The results were stunning.

“While critics of the law warned that drug use would swell, it has not risen,” Portuguese national drug coordinator João Castel-Branco Goulão told the New York Times in 2014. “We have seen significant reductions in HIV infections and in overdoses, as well as a substantial increase in new patients seeking drug treatment.”

By incorporating harm reduction into Evolve Festival through drug testing, the event’s organizers have placed themselves at a much higher risk for liability if any test proves inaccurate or if any attendee is harmed by drug use. On Tuesday, Colter told the CBC that upon learning of the plan to offer drug testing, the event’s insurance underwriter, Wynward Insurance Group, is “pulling the liability insurance,” threatening the entire festival.

“Hopefully there’s a progressive insurance underwriter out there who can take this on or at least this company or another one will take us on, perhaps with a contact signed that we won’t do these tests,” said Colter.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse warned on Tuesday that drug testing kits have “vastly diminished” value if testing is not done in combination with education and the results are not presented in context.

Update: Evolve Festival tweeted on Tuesday evening that “the show will go on,” and released a YouTube video in which Colter confirms that the outstanding issues have been resolved.

“Many of you have heard that Evolve is in jeopardy. It was,” said Colter, “[but] it seems we have an insurance provider… Evolve is not canceled, Evolve is going on.”

It is unclear whether plans to offer drug testing remain in place.

2012 Evolve Festival documentary by Hemmings House Pictures:

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