Journal NOW: 'Dude, What's In This Pill?' Managing the Risks of Festival Season

Blog Post created by jesseroman Employee on Aug 2, 2018

It’s the height of summer, which means it’s the height of festival season in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Over the last decade, there has been a massive surge both in the number of multi-day music festivals across the globe, as well as the number of people attending. In August alone, there are 36 big festivals planned in the U.S., according to, ranging from enormous festivals in big cities such as Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco and Lalapalooza in Chicago, to festivals quite literally in the middle of nowhere, such as the famed Burning Man event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, held August 26 through September 3.


These events present enormous logistical challenges for local responders and emergency managers, with unique needs depending on size, location, the type of festival, and even the genre of music. The Newport Jazz Festival, happening this weekend in the small ritzy Rhode Island city, for instance, is going to pose many different challenges than say, Electric Zoo, an electronic music festival in New York City, according to industry experts.

NFPA Journal’s cover story “Life of the Party” from July 2016 looked into the life safety challenges of these festivals. I spoke with the founder of the festival industry’s largest event medical provider; the longtime emergency services operations chief at Burning Man; a Canadian group that runs an innovative drug testing service for concert-goers to ensure what they think they’re taking hasn’t been misrepresented; as well as numerous other industry experts about preparation, innovation, and all of the clever ways life safety professionals have devised to keep these enormous events safe for patrons.


For me, one of the most interesting discoveries I made while reporting the story was the “harm reduction” efforts at the Shambhala Music Festival, which takes place this August 10-13 in British Columbia. In addition to offering free water, mental-health counseling, and a special group of campsites set aside for “sober camping,” festival organizers have allowed a local nonprofit to set up a tent to test concert-goers’ drugs free of charge and judgment. It’s such a popular service; the line can at times be up to two hours long.


 “The fact is these services are accessed by people who have already made the decision to use drugs before they meet with us. We are there to meet them where they are—we don’t encourage people, and we don’t judge them,” said Chloe Sage, the director of AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society, which runs the tent. “Each contact we have is an opportunity to discuss with someone contemplating drug use before they take it about how they can stay safer. If we just had a table with a bunch of pamphlets on it, we would never have the kind of contacts we have, but we are offering a service people want.”


In 2015, 3,224 pills and powders were tested onsite. One drug-related death has occurred over the festival’s 19 years.


To learn much more about this approach, read the article I wrote, “Dude, What’s In This Pill?” And, to learn more about the innovative technologies emergency managers are using at festivals, check out the article “Fest Tech.” Both appeared alongside, “Life of the Party” in the July 2016 NFPA Journal.