For modern festivals, harm reduction services are part of the game plan.

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The term “harm reduction” refers to a range of practices and policies with roots going back to the 1960s, when Canada’s first methadone programs were launched.

This model still faces scrutiny from skeptics. But at its core, harm reduction is about minimizing negative consequences (much like wearing a seatbelt while driving a car). Programs like supervised injection sites, safe supply, and community outreach allow service providers to meet people where they are at and create spaces for folks with substance use disorders to feel safe and cared for while battling addiction.

The concept of harm reduction has grown to encompass much more than its original purpose of providing an alternative to abstinence-based supports. It’s now commonplace in communities with high numbers of marginalized people, and in recent years, it’s been gaining popularity at events and festivals as well.

In fact, harm reduction has become a staple part of planning for many gatherings, from large events like Shambhala (15,000+ attendees) to smaller festivals. Locally, in 2022, AVI Health and Community Services brought drug-checking services and harm reduction information to booths at both Cumberland Wild and the Woodstove Festival. These seemingly small additions are actually monumental moves in policy reform to address the drug poisoning crisis we’re collectively experiencing.

The supply of illicit substances has become much more adulterated since the pandemic started, and substances we once thought relatively safe are now a roll of the dice. Increasingly, fentanyl is cut into everything and the number of deaths among recreational drug users is rising.

This scary reality has increased the need for harm reduction services at events. Even with strict no-substance use rules in place, people will continue to find ways to party however they see fit. (For example, rave culture and substance use have been synonymous for decades.)

CVC Vol34 12 HarmReduction Gallery

In festival settings, harm reduction incorporates multiple avenues of risk management and support, creating a safety net for festivalgoers and partiers alike. Services may include free and anonymous drug-checking, which tells folks whether their substance of choice has been cut with fentanyl, benzos, or a multitude of other harmful adulterants. Easily identifiable roaming outreach teams can provide partygoers with support and good vibes, safer use supplies, and a compassionate ear—or a first response in the event of an overdose before medical assistance arrives.

At safe spaces or chill zones, typically referred to as “sanctuaries,” folks can come and take a breather if they’re overwhelmed or need a quiet place to reset. Woman-specific safe spaces can offer support navigating all the above, plus women’s safety issues that may arise.

It’s a good practice to familiarize yourself with the harm reduction services tent upon arrival at a festival, just in case you or a friend need to access their services.

Education is a large part of harm reduction at events. Patrons can usually find info booths set up where they can access information about drug interactions, obtain safer sex supplies, and become trained in overdose response and the use of naloxone.

Festival harm reduction isn’t only for substance users: outreach crews also carry sunscreen, ear plugs, water, and other harm reduction supplies to promote general safety—and sometimes candy and other treats. These services benefit families with kids, or seasoned vets who just forgot a few things.

All in all, the objective of harm reduction services at festivals is to make sure everyone is having as much fun as they can, while being safe. Next time you’re out at an event, keep an eye out for these services and see for yourself!

If you’re interested in becoming part of a volunteer harm reduction team for festivals and events, and have a compassionate attitude and a passion for helping others, start by getting trained to use naloxone (contact AVI for info). Other skills like first-aid training and nonviolent crisis intervention are great assets to have.

For information on harm reduction services in the Comox Valley please visit and