City working with music festivals to prevent overdoses

In 2014, Jason and a group of friends made the trek from Ottawa to Toronto for a music festival.

He says they decided to bring MDMA, a common party drug. Jason, who spoke with Newstalk 580 CFRA on the condition we did not use his real name, says he and his friends were in the middle of a crowd when he recognized something was wrong.

"Halfway through one of the shows, I have no idea who I was seeing, but it just started to come back up."

He recalls vomiting a thick foam and having bodily convulsions. His friends recognized what was happening so they tried to pull him out of the crowd to safety and to the closest paramedic.  When his friends brought him to a nearby staff member selling t-shirts Jason says he was shocked by their response.

"We asked the guy for directions to the medical tent and he had no idea where it was."

This year, Ottawa's biggest music festivals want to make sure no one has the experience Jason had, one where help couldn't be found immediately.

Fortunately, with a little water and rest,  Jason ended up being okay, but other incidents haven't ended as well.

In 2014, a Montreal woman died after taking ecstasy at the Escapade Music Festival here in Ottawa. The festival was cleared of wrongdoing in the woman's death. In response, Escapade stepped up its safety measures. Ali Shafee, the festival's director of partnerships, says there'll be an increased first responder presence on site this year.

"The Canadian Ski Patrol, they will be trained on Naloxone as well; they'll be carrying it throughout the festival. That's obviously a first for us," he says. "Paramedics will be on site at the triage centre. We have two different first aid posts that we've set up. Last year it was one. So we've got a different set up in terms of a safety perspective with paramedics and Ottawa Public Health."

The new additions come from heightened concerns as overdose numbers across the capital have spiked, especially those related to opioids. In April, there were up to fifteen overdoses across the city in 72 hours alone - Ottawa Public Health says some of those were life-threatening. Many of these overdoses have been related to fentanyl, a drug experts say is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.

Gillian Connelly, public health's manager of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, says this year the task force's presence will be a little different.

"As a result of the opioid crisis the task force has grown and its mandate has grown as well," she says. "Connecting with festivals is something we've been doing for a number of years and through that, providing information to festival organizers with tips and tricks about how to reduce overdose at festivals and making sure that festival goers also have information."

She says that includes making sure staff at festivals who aren't necessarily paramedics, like security and vendors, recognize the signs of an overdose and can quickly find help.

Connelly says all of Ottawa's music festivals have been co-operative.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says the city is working closely with Escapade.

"We're going to have extra resources on site, both to prevent overdoses but to treat them if they do  in fact occur."

Shafee says in addition to first responders they have their staff working to keep people safe as part of their own safety patrol made up of students from the paramedic program at Algonquin College. Another new addition for this year is four extra water stations where people can grab a free drink. They'll be continuing their Party Safe, Party Smart campaign sees health and safety information pushed out to their tens of thousands of subscribers on their social media channels.

The Canadian Ski Patrol will also be on site as Bluesfest and CityFolk.

The City is encouraging party-goers to pick up their own Naloxone, a potentially life-saving overdose drug anyone can get for free at nearly any pharmacy with a health card. Mayor Watson says he believes pharmacies will be well equipped to handle any extra festival goers looking to pick up a Naloxone kit.

Ottawa Paramedics spokesperson Marc-Antoine Deschamps says the kind of messaging we're seeing at these festivals has been part of a general shift in attitude about drug use.

"'Don't do drugs,' although it's probably the most advisable thing to do, it doesn't work with the public," he says. "That's why Ottawa Public Health has been pushing for more safety measures for the people who are making the choice to use them.

He says while they are encouraging those who will be using drugs to do so safely, the ongoing opioid crisis brings with it serious risks.

"Even if you think you never took opiates in your entire life and you've only been taking cocaine and ecstasy, even these drugs can be tainted with fentanyl now and can cause serious reactions."

Deschamps says it's too early to tell whether the change of message is working to curb overdoses. Connelly says since the OPH task force began surveillance has been better but agrees it's too soon to say whether overdose numbers at festivals are going down.

Connelly says if a person does choose to use drugs at a festival - or anywhere - there are things they can do to protect themselves.

"Now, what we're really telling people is making sure they know the signs and symptoms of overdoses," she says. "If they are choosing to use drugs that they know the signs and symptoms, carry Naloxone, don't mix substances, and know when to call 911.”

Jason says in his situation -he was able to recover so quickly because his fellow concert goers recognized he needed to get out of the crowd and were quick to help him

"You tell people you need to get out, people will just take common courtesy and help you," he says. "When you're in the pit at a music festival everyone has the same knowledge to know if someone's in trouble you got to get them out of there.

This year if there are overdoses he thinks festival goers will show those people the same compassion.