Squamish festival, Mounties ramp up security after rash of drug-related incidents at music fests

 

 
 
 
 
Festival director Paul Runnals shows the media one of eight medical tents at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Wednesday.
 

Festival director Paul Runnals shows the media one of eight medical tents at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Wednesday.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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After a rash of drug-related deaths and illnesses at music festivals this summer, Squamish RCMP said they’ll be enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on harder drugs at the Squamish Valley Music Festival this weekend.

“We are going to arrest and charge,” said Sgt. Wayne Pride of the Squamish RCMP. “We are definitely going after hard drugs with a vengeance.”

But police will also exercise discretion depending on the type and amount of drugs.

“We’re not here to be heavy-handed,” said Pride. “If someone is found in possession of many individually wrapped packs of cocaine, for example, we’re going to take that more seriously than someone smoking a doobie in the crowd.”

Three people have died of suspected overdoses this summer in B.C. and Ontario at music fests, where so-called “party drugs” are common, and almost 100 more were hospitalized with drug- or alcohol-related illnesses.

Organizers of the Squamish festival, with headliners Arcade Fire and big names such as pop sensation Bruno Mars and rapper Eminem expected to attract as many as 35,000 on each of the five days, said they’re not concerned about drugs.

Drugs are “way more prevalent on the EDM (electronic dance music) scene and this isn’t an EDM scene,” said festival director Paul Runnals during a media preview tour of the site Wednesday.

“There have been some unfortunate things that have happened lately, but if you look at some of the dynamics around those events, they’re not like ours,” he said.

Festival security director Barry Wilding said festivalgoers will be patted down at the gates and their bags checked, with security on the lookout for illegal drugs.

“If we find it, we’ll confiscate it,” he said. “If we find people doing drugs, we’ll definitely get the RCMP involved.”

There will be 500 uniformed security guards, as well as a number of plain-clothes security on site, the exact number of which he wouldn’t reveal.

The Squamish RCMP detachment will be ramped up by member officers from various Metro Vancouver forces, said Pride.

“What we’ve heard with the overdoses reinforces our approach,” said Pride, noting Squamish police already planned to take a more “assertive approach” after seeing hard drugs make an appearance at recent Squamish fests.

This is the fifth year for the Squamish festival, and it’s the largest, with capacity for 35,000 visitors, up from 19,000 last year. The size of the site has grown this year to 81 acres from last year’s 30 acres, said Runnals.

There are eight medical tents with room enough to treat up to 50 people, he said.

B.C.’s top doctor is warning the combination of crowds, heat, alcohol and drugs at festivals can be fatal and the deaths this year have authorities concerned.

“There is no such thing as a safe drug,” said provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. “The best advice is don’t take them. You don’t know what’s in them. You get batches that are very toxic.”

Some might think “party” drugs, such as ecstasy, are a better alternative to cocaine or heroin because they are not addictive, but “they are not safe,” warned B.C. Coroners Service spokeswoman Barb McLintock. “They are made in someone’s home lab or bathtub, and you don’t know what they’re putting in there.”

And, “some people can take them for the first time in their whole lives and die,” she said.

At the first sign of dizziness, confusion or heart palpitations, stop and seek medical attention, said Kendall.

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2014 FESTIVAL DEATHS

Boonstock Music and Arts Festival, Penticton, Aug. 1 to 3.

Attendance: 8,000.

Lynn Tolocka, 24, of Leduc, Alta., died of an apparent drug overdose after collapsing while dancing on stage. Another 80 people were taken to hospital for drug- and alcohol-related illnesses.

Veld Electronic Music Festival, Downsview, Ont., Aug. 1 to 3.

Attendance: 38,000.

A man, 22, and a woman, 20, died and 13 were taken to hospital after consuming a brown pill or a clear capsule filled with a white substance, according to police. Cause of death is unknown.

Pemberton Music Festival, July 16 to 20.

Attendance: 20,000 to 25,000.

Nick Phongsavath, 21, of Regina was found unresponsive in his tent on the campgrounds Friday evening. The exact cause of death is not yet known pending a toxicology report.

 
 
 
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Festival director Paul Runnals shows the media one of eight medical tents at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Wednesday.
 

Festival director Paul Runnals shows the media one of eight medical tents at the Squamish Valley Music Festival on Wednesday.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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