07/21/2017 16:21 EDT | Updated 07/25/2017 15:53 EDT

Ontario Music Festival's Ban On Overdose Drug Has It Backwards

Rather than it being a liability for attendees to carry it, it's more of a liability for attendees not to.

Update 7/25/2017: WayHome Music and Arts Festival is now allowing festival goers to bring naloxone kits with them. For those who have the injectable kits, they will be swapped out for the nasal spray at the gate.

At the end of July, over 40,000 individuals will gather for the annual WayHome Music and Arts Festival at Burl's Creek Even Grounds in Oro-Medonte, Ont.

The festival, however, has sparked some controversy with its decision to ban festival goers from carrying naloxone kits, which is an "anti-overdose" kit, deeming them "drug paraphernalia" and included on the list of banned items. After drawing some criticisms, they ultimately upheld the ban based on two reasons — One, the "risks" of having untrained people administer it, and two, people's lack of understanding of how it works. It's important to note that the medical team will carry naloxone.

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Music fans attend the 2016 Way Home Music Festival on July 22, 2016 in Oro-Medonte, Ont.

As a WayHome attendee excited for this year's line up, I felt outraged and, frankly, disappointed at the idea that festival goers are unable to bring something which actually should be considered a first-aid tool rather than drug paraphernalia into this year's three-day camping festival.

The online response has been varied, but many festival goers have indicated they will "bring it anyways," and as others have explained, "... people use drugs recreationally... Bringing a kit in isn't an inherent "I'm doing drugs" statement, it's a choice of piece of mind and safety for yourself for your friends." Some questioned whether this response is tied to insurance issues and zero-tolerance policies, and others worry the response is rooted in the stigma and distrust of drug users more generally.

It's true that not everyone will be familiar with naloxone, and those who are not likely wouldn't be carrying a kit in the first place. According to the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, naloxone is a "safe, highly effective chemical compound that reverses the effects of opiates... It has been used in clinical settings as an emergency treatment for opiate overdose for 40 years... and is on the World Health Organization List of Essential Medicines. Naloxone has no potential for abuse — in the absence of narcotics it exhibits essentially no pharmacologic activity," which means, if given to someone not experiencing an overdose, it has no effect. It comes in both an injectable and nasal spray, although the injectable kits are the most common.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
A naloxone kit which temporarily reduces the effects of opioid overdose. Sherbourne Health Centre launched its take-home naloxone program in April, joining several other health clinics and pharmacies across the city that give out naloxone kits free of charge. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Canada more broadly is experiencing an overdose crisis. In Ontario alone, people — especially young people — are dying every single day. Much of this is tied to fentanyl and its analogues, which has made headlines across the continent. It might even be surprising that fentanyl is a common drug that has been used in hospitals as an anaesthetic for quite a while.

As part of Ontario's response, free Naloxone kits are now available at many pharmacies across the province to people who are current opioid users or a past user, recently released from a correctional facility, are a client at a needle syringe program, and are a family member, friend, or other person able to help someone at risk of an overdose - which means they're available to just about anyone who wants one.

Part of getting one of those kits, whether it be at a pharmacy or from a harm reduction service, is a mandatory training session. It's relatively straight forward — they walk you through signs of an overdose, tell you to first call emergency services, do some rescue breathing if the person is unresponsive, draw up one of the pre-measured doses into the syringe, and inject it into a muscle — including shoulder, thigh or butt. Then you can continue rescue breathing and wait for emergency services. The point being: it is something anyone can carry and learn to administer when they pick up their kits, and the only point of access should not solely be through medical teams on site, because in these situations, time is of the essence.

Another reason why naloxone is banned on site according to festival organizers includes that, "they come with syringes filled with a substance that we are not equipped to test at the gates for each attendee interested in bringing them onsite."However, the kits most often distributed have sealed glass vials with a measured quantity, or ampoules, that must be broken to draw up the liquid with a plastic safe guard. Meaning that if the festival wanted to allow naloxone, they could ask festival goers to identify the possession of the kits upon entry and simply ensure these ampoules are intact.

While other festivals have welcomed naloxone kits, it seems particularly important in the case of an overnight, three-day festival. Some festivals, such as the Shambala Music Festival, have gone even further and have also been offering drug-checking services onsite for almost 15 years. And we know harm reduction efforts work. With 40,000 individuals camping, it's possible the medical team could be hard to find or signal in the late evenings, spanned out across campgrounds and inside the festival, and among large crowds of people.

While I didn't exactly expect WayHome to explicitly say "bring your kits," I absolutely did not expect them to outright ban them.

It seems like a no-brainer to me — in the worst case, naloxone will do nothing, and in the best case, timely access could actually save someone's life. Naloxone is not a catch-all in overdose prevention, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it as accessible as possible. Even Health Canada's website encourages festival goers to carry naloxone, acknowledging, "While music festivals and other summer parties are a great way to celebrate the season, it is important to consider safety, especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol."

While I didn't exactly expect WayHome to explicitly say "bring your kits," I absolutely did not expect them to outright ban them. And to the WayHome organizers: please reconsider your naloxone policy. Rather than it being a liability for attendees to carry it, it's more of a liability for attendees not to.

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