All About Drug Checking (Part 2): The Team and the Tech of Music Festivals

Summer time in British Columbia means the start of music festival season and one of the busiest times of year for drug checking.

There were 735 samples checked at Bass Coast alone this year, according to the data collected in the database maintained by the BC Centre on Substance Use. The number of samples checked at the Shambhala Music Festival are estimated at close to 3,500.

How does drug checking at festivals make it through testing that many samples in the multi-day event? There were some new innovations tested out at Shambhala this year.

New Evolutions

In the past, ANKORS harm reduction services at Shambhala offered reagent drug testing, a method which uses reagents that change colour in the presence of specific substances, up until 2018. Drug checking at festivals has evolved a lot since then.

This year, in addition to drug checking services with the usual Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer and test strips, the harm reduction team got to test out some new technologies and innovations.

“We get to play with new technologies, with new procedures, kind of push the limit of what we can achieve with certain limited resources,” said Antoine Marcheterre, the Interior Health lead for drug checking and technical lead at Shambhala.

The online info screen system was one popular update to the harm reduction services at Shambhala this year.

The ANKORS harm reduction tent features two screens on 24 hours a day that display health advisories, important harm reduction messages, and highlight drug checking results with pictures. This year, the screen was also updated to include a QR code for people to scan and get updates directly to their phones.

Over the course of Shambhala, the QR code for the info-screen feed was scanned over 1,200 times.

“It was cool to see that people really were wanting to bring this [information] with them,” said Marcheterre.

Another update at festival drug checking was the addition of a weighing station. People could use the balances at the weighing station with members of the harm reduction team and drug checking technicians after they had their drugs checked with the FTIR.

Balances, or scales, are a harm reduction tool that help people who use drugs find their desired dose by the weight of their substance.

“It’s good to know with drug checking what is in your drug, but then what do you do? To me, dosage is the next step,” said Marcheterre.

“People coming to our service…could use the balance with [the team] to actually help out and understand what it means to measure out their doses.”

The drug checking setup and team members at Bass Coast 2023. Photo provided by: Antoine Marcheterre

“It was cool to see that people really were wanting to bring this [information] with them.”

An Unusual Environment

The music festival environment poses a unique challenge for drug checking because of how remote the festivals are from towns and cities. Resources like power aren’t always reliable and there’s the risk of needing to operate in difficult weather.

On top of the physical environment, the number of samples being checked is also much larger compared to community settings. Chris Kling, an ANKORS drug checking technician, worked as a drug checking technician at Shambhala for the first time and checked almost 250 samples in his three shifts.

“It was busy, it was a steady flow of people, and so there was that constant ‘go, go go’,” said Kling.

“There's this infectious energy there that you can't help but get caught up in.”

A Big Team

Working at the festivals may be busy, but having a large team there helps provide lots of support. The ANKORS tent at Shambhala this year had over 70 people working to provide the on-site harm reduction services, including drug checking.

“We are a very large team of people with all kinds of experience and knowledge, so it's a great place to go and interact with people that do the same thing as you do,” said Marcheterre.

Kling’s experience was nerve wracking with it being his first year on the drug checking machines, but working in pairs helped. One person could focus on reading the drug sample while the partner could give their attention to communicating harm reduction tips.

The experience made Kling feel more confident in his skills as a technician and helped him build a flow with going through samples.

"People are so receptive to coming in, to testing their substances,” said Kling.

“It just makes my heart happy to be out there sharing this [information] with folks, hopefully helping them make the right choices to be safe.”

ANKORS drug checking team at Shambhala 2023. Photo provided by Antoine Marcheterre.

This blog post is one part in an ongoing series being produced by The Drug Checking Project team. The goal of the series to give an in-depth look into what drug checking is, the impact the service has, the people involved across BC, and where drug checking is going.

Additional information and data can be found on our website at and other posts in this series will be made available here on the BCCSU website.