The problems plaguing music festivals: drug expert and sex assault victim weigh in

WATCH ABOVE: As the 2015 summer music festival season approaches, experts offer their tips on how to stay safe. Trish Kozicka reports.

TORONTO — Generally when getting ready to hit up a summer music festival, the performance schedule and food vendors are top of mind. But, as the 2015 festival season approaches, experts say safety is not to be ignored after several drug-related deaths and sexual assaults last year.

When it comes to drugs, B.C. RCMP say distribution at large festivals is on the rise. And the biggest problem is the people choosing to take drugs don’t really know what’s in them, according to Dr. Matthew Young, a senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

The issue is the subject of the documentary below called, What’s In My Baggie?

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“Quite frequently, when people are purchasing a drug [known on the street as Molly or ecstasy], it rarely contains the active ingredient that they think it’s supposed to include, and that is MDMA,” Young said.

READ MORE: What is Molly? How the party drug works and why it’s risky

“Oftentimes it will contain other drugs, frequently a class of drugs called ‘synthetic cathinones,’ which are more colloquially known as ‘bath salts.’ These are stimulant drugs that have a whole host of negative effects and can cause a great deal of harm.”

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READ MORE: Frequently Asked Questions – ‘Bath Salts’

Last year at Toronto’s VELD music festival, two people died and more than a dozens others were taken to hospital. Police said all of them ingested what were believed to be party drugs purchased at the festival.

“Some of these people didn’t even know what they were taking,” said Det. Sgt. Peter Trimble at the time.

“We had some people taking upwards of ten pills, some people taking pills they found on the ground.”

WATCH: Homicide squad investigating after two deaths at Veld Music Festival

Organizers said there were 280 security guards, 40 medics, a medical doctor, eight paramedics and 26 paid duty officers working the two-day event. They’re still finalizing their security plans for this year.

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That same August long weekend at the Boonstock festival in Penticton, B.C., a 24-year-old woman from Leduc, Alberta, died of a suspected drug overdose and about 80 others had to be hospitalized. Another woman died at Ottawa’s Escapade Music Festival over the Canada Day long weekend a month earlier, from what was believed to be ecstasy.

WATCH: After several deaths at music festival around the country, what should be done about so-called ‘party drugs?’

Precautions for medical emergencies are commonplace at music festivals.

“They actually set up, like, almost little mini hospitals in the raves for some of these things because of the overdoses that they deal with,” said Cst. Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department.

But, despite all the security and the bag checks, the problems persist — and not just when it comes to drugs.

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Sexual assaults

At the 2014 Craven Country Jamboree in Saskatchewan, the RCMP received five sexual assault complaints. Many others go unreported, according to experts.

Nicki Varkevisser was 18 when she claims she was assaulted three separate times at Montreal’s 2012 Osheaga music festival: once when dancing and twice when crowd-surfing.

“I didn’t report the assaults to the security or the police because I didn’t think there was anything they could do,” she said.

“There were so many people at the music festival that there would be no way for the security to even find these people, too many people would have fit their description.”

At this year’s Coachella festival, rape culture was thrust into the spotlight after one smiling festival-goer was photographed wearing a “Eat Sleep Rape Repeat” shirt.

Varkevisser believes rape culture exists everywhere, but seems to be heightened in party-like atmospheres like music festivals.

There have been many publicized cases of the problem at music festivals in the U.S. Last July, a 17-year-old in Massachusetts was reportedly raped on the lawn of an outdoor venue. “More than a dozen people looked on as the alleged crime was committed, some taking photos,” according to a CBS report.

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The year before that at the Electric Zoo music festival in New York, “a 16-year-old girl reported waking up under a van in the event’s parking lot…with her pants down and her legs scratched and bruised.”

So what needs to be done?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Police officials Global News spoke to didn’t seem to have specific answers when it comes to the drug issue. One Toronto police spokesperson said to “be careful.”

Organizations like Ontario’s TRIP! Project and B.C.’s Ankors try to help. TRIP! sells $25 drug testing kits, which are good for 40-50 uses. Ankors volunteers do the drug testing themselves. At last year’s Shambhala Music Festival in B.C., they threw out hundreds of drugs and found 91 samples of “mystery substances.”

Young said that while the drug testing is “an interesting idea,” it’s also controversial. From a harm-reduction perspective, he explained that more information is better than no information. On the other hand, questions remain over how reliable that information is.

“The substance being tested may contain other chemicals,” he cautioned, “it may give a false sense of security to the individual who did the test.”

His bottom line? “The safest way to avoid the harms is to not do the substances.”

Festival organizers arguably have a role to play in drug safety, as well, though. Young listed a few things they can do to limit drug overdoses at their events:

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  • Provide free and easy access to water for all festival attendees, as sometimes the harms associated with the drugs can manifest themselves through dehydration.
  • Provide access to a safe, physical space safe from the crowd where people can get help.
  • Communicate better with the community to ensure all the necessary supports are there.

Festival-goers should always know where the medical tents are, and be aware of what the signs of an adverse drug reaction can be, he added.

Sticking with a friend throughout the festival is a good idea too. Police also recommend that to limit the risk of sexual assaults at these events.

Varkevisser still feels more can be done on that front.

“I feel like the organizers of the festivals could have information about consent and sexual assault at the entrance area of the festival,” she said.

B.C. RCMP advise people to exercise caution when under the influence.

“Women especially,” said Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, “should be cognizant of the fact that in a crowd, there could be people who will take advantage of you when you are intoxicated and vulnerable.”

For more music festival safety tips, visit the TRIP! Project.

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