Folk Fest needs to offer on-site drug testing, harm reduction advocate says

A Manitoba harm reduction advocate is calling for on-site drug testing at music festivals, as the province’s biggest one — the Winnipeg Folk Festival — is set to begin.

“What we’re trying to do is start conversations with festivals like this to sit down and talk about what kind of harm reduction they should be doing at these kind of events,” said Arlene Last-Kolb, co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba and member of Moms Stop the Harm.

“Drug testing is something that is extremely important that we start incorporating.”

Drug use at music festivals is no secret, so it’s time to remove the blinders and make testing available in order to keep everyone safe and potentially save lives, said Last-Kolb, whose 24-year-old son Jessie died from fentanyl poisoning in July 2014.

“We know that fentanyl is showing up in stuff like mushrooms, cocaine — the kind of things that people use at festivals. We know that it’s showing up in pills and things like that,” she said.

“When you’re putting on an event where you know that people are going to consume drugs, it just makes sense to incorporate this kind of stuff, harm reduction, in your plans.”

A woman in long black hair that is pulled back in a pony tail, holds up a small red zippered pouch
Arlene Last-Kolb holds up a naloxone kit. (Natalia Weichsel/Radio-Canada)

The Folk Festival, which runs this year from July 11-14 at Birds Hill Provincial Park, said in an emailed statement that it has “invested heavily in site safety initiatives.” Its volunteers are trained in administering naloxone, a medication used to restore breathing after an opioid overdose.

Organizers said they are open to doing more but do not have legal authority to provide drug testing, calling it a complex public policy issue.

“While testing kits are available to individuals in their daily lives to test for individual substances, testing by organizations requires a federal exemption and specialized insurance which the festival does not have,” the statement said.

“We have been in conversation with potential partners regarding future solutions, however there are limited resources available for this activity. We want to ensure that if/when we are able to do drug testing on site that we are doing it confidently, to not give a false sense of security to the patrons.”

Last-Kolb says she’s not asking Folk Fest to set up a drug-testing machine or to make drug testing mandatory, for now, but to at least offer test strips that can detect the presence of deadly fentanyl and benzodiazepene in drugs.

“I’m just asking for little preventive measures beyond Narcan [a naloxone brand name] … and having people out there that are willing to test people’s drugs and talk to them about that,” she said.

“Folk Fest and all the other festivals going on in this province are going to have to step up.”

Close up of someone's hands with pink nails, holding a red pouch with medical equipment.
A naloxone kit contains medication and instructions on how to administer it. (Natalia Weichsel/Radio-Canada)

While many harm reduction organizations are strained just trying to provide services within the city, Last-Kolb said there are always people willing to go to events like Folk Fest to walk around and make sure people are being safe.

“We all play a responsibility in keeping our loved ones alive., and when we’re sending them off to events, we want everything possible to make sure that they will enjoy that event and not come home harmed in any way,” she said.

“They [event organizers] have a responsibility to keep people safe, and there’s a lot of people that attend Folk Festival that are under 18.”

It may be too late to put those measures in place this year, but there’s plenty of time for 2025, Last-Kolb said.

“They will have a year to see how they can do better. I expect a lot better. I’m also very open, and the harm reduction community is very open, to working with any festivals to help them out in any way they can.”

She intends to continue pressuring politicians until there is a safe, regulated drug supply available in the province.

“We don’t have that right now. We’re living in a toxic drug supply,” Last-Kolb said.

She hopes her advocacy also serves as a warning to users to get their drugs tested before taking them, and not to take anything offered by someone they don’t know.

“Don’t do that. We don’t know what’s in it anymore,” she said. “I have had a child die. I’m doing this because I want to warn the community. I want parents to have the conversation with their kids before they go. I want people to talk about this and I want people to do better.

“I want people to stop walking around with blinders on. I want them to stop thinking that this couldn’t happen to them. When we make this an open discussion, when we don’t hide it, it becomes knowledge, and with that, we can do much better.”