Why Shambhala Has the Best Harm Reduction Program of Any Big North American Festival

Article by: Eamon Armstrong|@EamonArmstrong

Mon August 07, 2017 | 09:40 AM

Shambhala Music Festival hosts more than 11,000 electronic music fans each August in the beautiful Kootenay region of British Columbia. The festival is internationally renowned for its gorgeous scenery, familial vibes, epic lineups, and cutting-edge stage design.

The festival also provides forward-thinking services for attendee health and safety, including harm reduction, a health and safety-focused philosophy that seeks to minimize the physical and emotional damages of substance use. For its size, Shambhala is second only to Boom in Portugal (a country that has decriminalized minor drug possession entirely) in these kinds of sophisticated services.

“Having safe spaces shows your crowd that you care about people,” says Stacette Lockdown, Shambhala’s Harm Reduction Manager. “The interdepartmental communication with all of the public safety is very important. Security working with medical, medical working with safe spaces. We are all connected and when we stay connected on that level it increases the safety of the festival.”

Shambhala is held on private land and funded entirely by tickets purchased by attendees. This means that the organizers are not beholden to corporate sponsors or government officials in deciding how to approach attendee safety. The family and staff who run the festival have chosen to make harm reduction a number one priority at the festival. They’ve even gone so far as to ban the sale or possession of alcohol at the event in the interest of creating a safer space.

The utmost importance of Shambhala’s various programs, which are listed below, can be felt through the voices of Shambhala attendees themselves. We hope their words encourage fellow festival attendees to utilize these resources (both drug and general wellness related) if necessary, and we encourage other festivals to look to Shambhala’s example where possible in designing their own programs.

First Aid

Shambhala 2014 Art Gimbel 18

Photo by: Art Gimbel

First Aid teams are the unsung heroes of music festivals. They’re are mostly made up of volunteers (plus at least one licensed doctor and registered nurse on shift at all times) who handle everything from minor cuts and scrapes to life-threatening emergencies. The first aid team at Shambhala is no exception and works in great coordination with the fest’s other harm reduction teams.

“I was the first ‘code one’ at Shambs in 2014,” recalls attendee Dave Douglas. “After twelve-plus hours in the sun getting in on Wednesday I was halfway through putting up my tent when I was overcome by heat stroke, which triggered a seizure. First aid responded exceptionally fast and had me re-hydrated and stable in under an hour. Awesomesauce times ten! Big Shambs hug to all the medical staff from Mr. Mouse!”

Outreach Team

Shambhala 2014 Art Gimbel 3

Photo by: Art Gimbel

One of the ways that Shambhala checks on attendees' safety is through the use Harm Reduction Outreach teams: pairs of roaming, well trained and radio connected volunteers on twelve hour shifts. At Shambhala there are at least two pairs in the field at all times including nurses, social workers and mental health and addiction specialists. 

While constantly getting checked on might seem a little annoying, (“Shambhala, the hardest place to have a nap because people care so much!” Jokes one attendee in the Shambhala Facebook group) the attendees I spoke to were all grateful for this service.

Erikskraw Eand was huddled with their partner early on Sunday morning. They had their eyes closed and were looking like they might be in trouble, “It was so heartwarming and ensuring when a worker actually walked over to check on us and make sure everything was cool. Nice to know everyone is being looked after and not ignored! What a great job, going around making sure people are having fun and feeling good.”

Mark Laforet, Outreach Team Lead, spoke about the added challenges at the 2015 festival: "With the multiple deaths from Fentanyl in BC and elsewhere, outreach members had the added task of going on observed symptoms of opiate overdose even to the level of carrying Naloxone antidote kits to save lives before medical could get to the scene."

The Sanctuary

Shambhala 2014 Art Gimbel 48

Photo by: Art Gimbel

Providing a psychedelic safe space is a growing trend in the festival world. Psychedelic first aid, or “tripsitting,” involves a caring volunteer sitting with someone having a difficult psychedelic experience and gently affirming their experience without intervening. The Sanctuary space at Shambhala has warm beds, juice boxes, and coloring books where overwhelmed attendees can come to rest and feel safe as they go through the arch of their experience.

“I visited Sanctuary on Friday night,” reported an attendee who understandably wishes to remain anonymous. “I had taken more substances that I probably should have and was feeling overwhelmed by over stimulation. The place was definitely aptly named, as the people there were understanding, knowledgeable of how to deal with people who are too high, and the space itself was extremely calm and inviting. The staff knew their stuff when it came to understanding the effects of particular stimulants and were able to cope with me quite effectively. I went out of there feeling relatively better after maybe 45 minutes. That place was a bastion of safety for me.

Festival Drug Checking

Shambhala Festival Drug Testing

Photo by: Art Gimbel

Testing illicit substances for the sake of minimizing harm is a contentious issue in the festival world. All festivals in countries with drug prohibition are “zero tolerance” concerning illegal drugs; the festivals simply wouldn’t be allowed to operate if they were encouraging illegal activity. At the heart of harm reduction is meeting a person where they are at, and finding ways to make their actions less risky. The heart of harm reduction is about non-judgement and respect. Some might argue that offering a pill testing service encourages drug use and leads people to believe that they can use a potentially dangerous substance safely because it is chemically pure. It’s also important to remember that drug testing kits are not an exact science and can’t test for every potential (and harmful) impurity.

At Shambhala, the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS) offers education and reagent tests for attendees choosing to use illegal drugs. Volunteers are not allowed to touch the substances themselves; the testers use three separate chemical reactions to see if the substance is what the person believes they bought. This process cannot test for purity however. If someone bought MDMA for example, and it doesn’t test for MDMA we can try out a few other options but if it tests positive for MDMA like substance, then we can’t test for anything else so even though it tested positive for MDMA, it likely has other adulterants and buffers in it. The volunteer also communicates very clearly the limitations of the testing procedure and offers educational material to the individual.

Shambhala Drug Testing 2

Photo by: Art Gimbel

Jamie Makena, Education and Prevention Coordinator at ANKORS. “We recognize since we do not have a mass spectrometer and are using reagent testing there are limitations to the results we can offer. However, one of the most critical services we provide is a point of contact. In those few moments we connect with someone at the festival we get to talk about how they are doing, if they have eaten, or slept, if they know all the local resources (i.e. first aid, safe space, sanctuary), what their plan of use is, if they know much about the substances they are using, or risks of mixing, if they know where their friends are, etc… It is in those few moments that the real work of Harm Reduction happens. It is so much more than a positive or negative test for the presence of a substance.”

Women’s Safe Space

Shambhala Womens Safe Space

Photo by: Art Gimbel

One of the most impressive parts of Shambhala’s overall harm reduction program is the Women’s Safe Space. In an environment of sexual permissiveness and personal expression, it is incredibly valuable to dedicate a space where self-identified women can retreat from unwanted attention in the safety of professionally trained personnel. This program has been so successful it has inspired other festivals around the world.

The Women’s Safe Space was particularly important for one attendee being harassed by an obsessed ex-boyfriend, “He found out where I was camped and crawled into my tent while I was sleeping. I remembered the Women's Safe Space and made a beeline for the tent in the harm reduction area. I walked into a private, comfortable, welcoming space where the only thing I was asked for was my name. When I realized I was safe, I asked the attendant what I should do if I was being followed. I was met with understanding, non-judgment, and various options to help me feel safer. During the hour I spent in the tent, I received counseling, food, water, love, Kleenex, a tent lock, and the knowledge of the options available to me given my circumstances. I can honestly say that having that space when I didn't know where else to turn allowed me to shake the sad, hopeless, and terrified feelings that had shadowed me all day to go on and have what would be an incredible Sunday evening. I saw other girls come through with various similar situations, and I saw the relief they felt knowing they were safe. I never thought I would need to utilize that space, but truly my Shambhala experience this year would not have been the same without it.

The Shambhala Community

Shambhala Festival Shamanifesto

Photo by: Art Gimbel

While Shambhala offers cutting-edge resources to support attendee health and safety, this is only half of the equation. In the end it all comes down to attendees actually utilizing these resources to get the help they need and that usually comes down to the influence of people’s friends. According to Shayna Lee, one of the paramedics who works for Shambhala, “the most important thing I see every year that makes the difference between people getting fixed up by us or having to get sent to the hospital is people’s friends. You see so many people not wanting to come into the medical tent but being encouraged by friends to seek medical attention, or friends coming to us to come get their friends or assess them.”

This level of care is no accident. At Shambhala, attendees, called “Shambhalovies,” are a highly engaged, year-round community that has been educated to take care of each other through social media, peer-to-peer engagement and encouraging posters placed around the festival. Much of the work of the popular ShambhaMom Britz involves acculturating attendees to take care of each other.

“I think the care each festival-goer shows for each other throughout the festival is what makes the difference between many people leaving Shambhala with a smile as opposed to in a ambulance.” Shayna continues, “The most rewarding part of my Shambs in 2014 was having to breathe for a patient while racing through the packed vendor area in the back of one of our 4x4s while being held in the cart by the patient's friends so I didn't fly out the back. [I got to] to see him later (after the doctors worked their magic) to tell him I was glad he was OK, happy Shambhala, party safe, and of course gave him a hug. One of the other nurses sat there with him through the entire time he was unconscious and did the same thing. I guess that's the difference between a hospital or other festivals and Shambs...you leave with a hug and knowing you're loved!"