What I learned about Harm Reduction at the Shambhala Music Festival

2015-08-08 12.57.17

Cards from DANCESAFE   https://dancesafe.org.     On the back of each card is extensive information about the effects, risks and ways to use most safely! Rocks are on the cards to keep them from blowing away when the breezes picked up!

As a Selkirk College counsellor and Kootenay Mom I know many students and young people, including my son and his friends, who have gone to Shambhala Music Festival over the years, but this was my first time to drive the long, dusty road down to the Bundschuh’s ranch. For a few days every August, this family farm turns into a community of 10,000 people from all over the globe who come to camp, connect with friends and dance to electronic music from some of the world’s best DJ’s.

Selkirk College counsellors and residence staff have partnered with ANKORS    http://www.ankors.bc.ca/   in the past as part of this agency’s mandate is providing education around safe partying.   I wanted to learn more about  harm reduction and so embarked on professional development that included  several hours of reading, video watching, on-site training and then volunteering for two six hour shifts in their tent at the Shambhala Festival.  I have come away so impressed by the important work that ANKOR2015-08-08 16.12.31S is doing and can totally understand why this tiny agency is getting world-wide recognition for its smart, humane approach to educating people so they can make informed choices.

The ANKORS harm reduction tent at Shambhala is the biggest above ground drug education and testing site in North America.  During each of my shifts there were up to 80 people lined up to  get information, ear plugs or get their drugs tested by trained volunteers. My particular job was to meet people in the line ups and get them to read a waiver that explained that this testing would be able to show whether there was at least some of the substance they thought they had bought, but that it couldn’t definitely tell them what else might be added.  It also states clearly that no drug, no matter how pure is ever totally safe.  I then spent time with each person, or groups who had come together, finding out what they wanted tested and where they had got their drugs. This data can be very helpful if we do discover dangerous substances so warnings can go out to the appropriate places. These line-up chats gave lots of opportunity to talk about the harm reduction principles around taking good care of each other, sleeping, eating and drinking lots of water and we were continually telling people about the medical tent, the women’s safe space and the amazing Sanctuary where anyone could go who was feeling overwhelmed or  in need of quiet, rest and emotional support.

2015-08-04 19.53.25

The sanctuary is a safe area of calm where people can go if they are overwhelmed and need quiet, sleep and emotional support.

The testing  tent is surrounded by harm reduction posters  and at the info table there is an important drug interaction chart that helps people be educated about ways different substances interact. 2015-08-08 12.54.32 For instance – alcohol is counter-indicated for use with most other substances and mixing depressants and stimulants is very confusing to your body and may be fatal.

Here is a look at our info table, the white board with update info on our findings and some of the posters surrounding the tent that everyone was constantly reading on their way to all parts of the festival grounds.  I particularly saw people lined up for the showers reading the info and discussing it with their friends.
2015-08-08 12.51.56

2015-08-08 12.51.47

Alexa is one of the forty volunteers. At the info table we gave out tons of pamphlets, condoms, earplugs and also had a lap top to look up info on drugs or interactions we were unfamiliar with.

2015-08-08 12.52.392015-08-08 12.52.052015-08-08 12.55.022015-08-08 12.53.142015-08-04 19.57.592015-08-08 12.52.312015-08-08 12.54.202015-08-04 19.57.32

In the line ups I talked to people from Australia, Sweden, Puerto Rico, Ireland, England, France, New York, Boston, Florida, Montreal and there were even a few locals 🙂   Some people had been coming for many years and for others this was their first time.  I kept asking people what the festival had been like for them and they consistently said they loved it because:

the people are so open and friendly

the shows, music and dancing are fantastic

the river and mountains are magical

they are glad to be at a no-alcohol event (less aggressive out-of-control behavior)

the art, gardens and stages are stunning and everyone takes such care in keeping the environment beautiful

they are inspired by the spirit of kindness, creativity and joy

I am sure, as in any group of 10,000, there were also people who had less pleasant experiences and I did talk to one person who had a terrible night with a drug that didn’t end up being what he thought it was (hence coming to the drug testing tent the next day!) and there were reports of some people taking something that caused violent vomiting.    However, most of the people I spoke to were overwhelmingly positive, having a wonderful time and some said it was life-changing.   In addition, people thanked us profusely for our services and were so amazed that Shambhala and ANKORS cared about participants enough to use a harm reduction approach that recognizes that some people will bring in party drugs (even though the web-site and signs discourage it) and that it is best to be educated and safe as opposed to pretending that substances aren’t being used.

2015-08-08 16.47.40

Chloe Sage -part of the ANKORS education program and team leader at the Shambhala Harm Reduction Tent.

Just before I left my shift Chloe Sage, the team leader in the ANKORS harm reduction tent, was interviewed by the epic crew from VICE documentaries http://www.vice.com/videos. They spent half an hour talking to her about the Shambhala Festival’s unique approach to safety and well-being and we can all look forward to seeing that conversation on the Vice web-site!

In our provincial post-secondary  “Changing Cultures of Substance Use Project”  https://tenthstreetdinner.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/of-peonies-poetry-beauty-and-cultures-of-well-being/  we have had discussions about how meaningful dialogue,  art, music and intentionality are some of the ingredients of a healthy culture.  Shambhala Music Festival is doing its best to create the mythical, fabled lost kingdom of Shambhala (also known as Shangri-La) and I feel lucky to have had the chance to be a part of it (and who knows we may have saved some lives along the way!)

For more info on substance use and safety go to   https://dancesafe.org

And, here is a great Globe and Mail article from August 2014 that describes the harm reduction approach as well:


Here are a few more images of the imaginative art and spirit of Shambhala:

2015-08-04 19.39.45

Night Owl Coffee Bar

2015-08-08 17.10.05

one camp area where people agree to no drugs or alcohol. AA/NA recovery meetings are also offered 3 times a day to offer peer support for those wanting to have a great time without substance use.

2015-08-04 19.47.57 HDR 2015-08-08 17.11.192015-08-04 19.42.14 HDR    2015-08-08 17.06.51 2015-08-08 12.55.40 HDR 2015-08-04 19.32.23 HDR2015-08-08 17.07.092015-08-08 17.08.40


2 responses to “What I learned about Harm Reduction at the Shambhala Music Festival

  1. Wow Robin, what a create experience you had going to Shambhala! Thanks for writing such an interesting blog post capturing your experience while working at the festival. I think that is definitely a unique approach that other music festivals, as well as post-secondary institutions could learn from. Recently, I was at the Squamish Music Festival and did not see anything like this available to attendees. Not only does this approach encourage safe use, it also builds a sense of belonging and community as the attendees know that you (and others) care about their well-being.

    I wonder how we can learn from what ANKORS are doing to adapt within the post-secondary setting. I’m curious if anyone else has any examples of ways a harm reduction approach has been successful on their campus?

  2. Thanks Sarah – I did find the whole experience very interesting. It is hard to know how to adapt this to post-secondary settings. I do think the educational material and non-judgmental conversations about safety and taking care of each other is probably the starting point. Someone told me that you can order test kits on-line so it might be good for students to know that is (or might be) an option if they want to do their own testing. It is all very tricky, because these substances are illegal so we walk a fine-line encouraging safety when it is also against rules and the law to have drugs in one’s possession. On the other hand, to pretend that substance use is not happening and choose not to provide safety info doesn’t feel very ethical either. Even though this electronic music festival harm reduction tent provides a very interesting program, I still think that alcohol is the substance that creates the most challenges for campus culture and well-being. So, it is probably harm reduction around that legal substance that needs the most attention.

    Lots of things to think and talk about . . . . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s