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Quebec May Create Festival Drug Testing Programme to Reduce Drug Harms

The government of the Canadian province of Quebec has authorised state-led research into the benefits of allowing people to test their drugs at festivals.

In early May, Quebec's health ministry declared that they had authorised the $100,000 study, which will be funded by Health Canada’s Program on Substance Use and Dependence, according to a report by Vice (in French). The study will investigate the potential outcomes of allowing people to have their drugs tested at nightlife venues, festivals, and LBGT+ venues.

Researchers will undertake a literature review, consult with experts, and then undertake field research by analysing substances at festivals. A ministry spokesperson, Noémie Vanheuverzwijn, said that the study will conclude in 2020 and then make recommendations to the Quebec government for the creation of a pilot substance testing programme. As Vice reports, the practice is currently illegal in Canada unless the service provider is granted an exemption by the government.

GRIP Montreal, a Quebec-based non-profit organisation that works to reduce the risks and potential harms of drug use, has stressed that drug testing could save lives if permitted in the province.

"With the fentanyl crisis we're having right now, there is a great risk to recreational drug users and we might have many overdoses and even deaths if the situation is not handled," Jean-Sébastien Fallu, GRIP Montreal's founder, said in 2017.

Indeed, drug testing elsewhere in Canada has revealed the prevalence of fentanyl – a highly potent opioid linked to hundreds of overdoses across the country – in batches of other drugs at music festivals. According to ANKORS, a harm reduction non-profit in British Columbia, the drug was found in several tested batches of MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine at the province’s Shambhala music festival in 2017.

Aside from revealing the presence of contaminants like fentanyl, drug testing can also help people estimate the purity and strength of their drugs – allowing them to make a relatively educated decision of how to dose, or whether to take any at all.

The Loop, a UK-based organisation, has trialled drug testing services at several festivals, and their findings show that knowing the contents of a drug batch can significantly change a person’s decisions. Among the estimated 1,500 people who the Loop have provided services to, around 150-300 chose to dispose of their drugs.

"We're taking 10 to 20 per cent of drugs out of circulation," described Fiona Measham, The Loop’s director, "the police are pleased, users are pleased, and paramedics are pleased. We're told we reduce drug-related medical incidents on site by 25 per cent".

As a range of new drug policy measures are implemented across Canada – including the opening of new drug consumption rooms, the legal regulation of cannabis, and the free provision of overdose-reversal medication naloxone in Quebec pharmacies – evidence suggests that the provision of drug testing could be another progressive step in reducing drug harms.

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