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Saving lives is more important than pretending to wage war on drugs

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Photo: Eva Rinaldi/flickr

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Let's begin with a worst-case-scenario hypothetical.

A young woman attending last weekend's Evolve Music Festival -- Antigonish's three-day "celebration of music, culture, and social awareness" -- decides she wants to alter her mind with some mind-altering substance. She asks around, discovers a guy selling what she thinks she wants to buy. She buys. She takes. But the drug isn't what she thought. She collapses. She's rushed to hospital. She dies.

That horrific hypothetical isn't all that hypothetical.

At Toronto's Veld Festival last year, a 20-year-old woman who was a promising political science major and a 22-year-old man with a diploma in marketing died after taking what they thought was a "party drug." Thirteen others were sent to hospital.

That same summer, another woman died and 80 were hospitalized at B.C.'s Boonstock festival.

In 2012, a man died of an overdose at the Shambhala Music Festival in B.C.

After that, Shambhala organizers decided to offer on-site testing to make sure attendees at least knew what they were buying. They are now even able to post whiteboard notices -- "Green playboy bunny baggie -- sold as ketamine -- actually methoxetamine" -- warning people away from the more dangerous substances.

Evolve's producer, Jonas Colter, wanted to do the same at last weekend's Evolve 16. Although no one has died at his festival, three people were taken to hospital last year with drug overdoses.

But after he announced what should have been this feel-good, pro-active, harm-reduction strategy, Evolve's insurance underwriter immediately pulled the plug on its liability insurance. One presumes its concern is either that drug testing might appear to condone illegal activity or that someone might sue if a test provided inaccurate results.

But if our worst-case scenario ever actually happened, the family of the dead girl might sue anyway -- because the insurance company refused to let the organizers provide testing that might have saved her life. 

Luckily, it appears that worst-case-scenario hypothetical is just that.

But there will continue to be festivals. And drugs. And people will die. Unless we acknowledge reality, and decide saving lives is more important than pretending to wage war on drugs.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi/flickr

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