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HSE drug expert: We need to consider testing and amnesty bins for clubs and festivals

Amnesty bins aren’t possible right now, legally – but the option will be considered.

A SENIOR ADDICTION expert at the HSE has said that drug testing needs to be considered for festivals and nightclubs in order to cut down on overdoses and drug-related health problems.

Dr Eamon Keenan, the HSE’s National Addiction Lead, said amnesty bins – which allow a person to dispose of quantities of drugs – could also be brought in for dance-oriented events in clubs and at summer festivals like the Electric Picnic. He said he had looked at bringing in a pilot version of an amnesty bin scheme at a festival last year, but that it wasn’t viable at the time.

A number of groups, including Help Not Harm and the Ana Liffey Drug Project, will be providing what are known as ‘harm-reduction’ services for festival-goers at the Electric Picnic this weekend. Officially sanctioned drug-testing will not take place this year – but the issue is being considered as part of the government’s latest national drug strategy. Amnesty bins will also be looked at by a working group being set up as part of that strategy.

“Drug testing has been shown across Europe to be an initiative which has been very beneficial in terms of harm reduction around drugs,” Keenan, who is a consultant psychiatrist in substance misuse, said in an interview with TheJournal.ie. 

While portable drug-testing kits are available over the internet, Keenan said they presented certain problems, and were far from infallible.

“People can buy these kits over the internet and then test their drugs but that doesn’t really tell you what’s in the drugs. It might tell you what’s not in the drug but it doesn’t give you a full analysis – so people using those testing kits are taking a risk

For example the test might be for (the amphetamine) PMA and you could test your tablet or pill for PMA – and it comes up that there’s no PMA in it. But it doesn’t tell you what other impurities or what other drugs are in it, so you’re still not in a position to be able to safely say that there’s going to be no harm associated with this.

Drug-testing that takes place on the continent is of a much higher specification, he said, “almost like laboratory testing in that you are able to identify the products that are in the particular pill or tablet that you are testing and give a much more scientific and definitive report to the person who hands the pill in”.

shutterstock_617993144 Source: Shutterstock/DisobeyArt

The practicalities around the introduction of amnesty bins need to be examined by a range of stakeholders as part of the new working group, Keenan said – including the Department of Justice.

The bins – which would allow people to dispose of drugs without fear of being arrested – have been used in other jurisdictions, including the UK and Canada.

“If you have an amnesty bin and people are putting drugs into it you have to ensure that people can’t take drugs out of it,” Keenan said.

“You’re going to have to have some sort of police presence there – and it’s going be very hard for the guards to turn a blind eye to individuals dropping in tablets that are possibly illegal into a bin.

So there’s a security element in relation to it that the guards need to be able to stand over – and at the minute under the legislation they can’t sort-of turn a blind eye to somebody dropping in illicit drugs.

When will we see amnesty bins?  

As for when we may see the introduction of amnesty bins at the Electric Picnic or at other Irish venues and festivals, Keenan said the working group that would examine the proposal had yet to be set up – but was expected to begin work next year.

The HSE and Department of Health are expected to take the lead on that working group, with input from other agencies. A statement from the Department of Justice said it would “of course contribute to the work of the group in whatever capacity is needed”.

Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project said the bins would be a common sense move.

“If a festival-goer has knowingly bought drugs from someone and is having second thoughts about taking them – at the moment that person is unlikely to hand those drugs into the authorities for fear of being arrested,” Duffin said.

“It’s better for everyone if there is a legitimate way for them to dispose of those drugs.

They can also provide samples of drugs in circulation which could be tested, allowing drug specific health information to be generated in real time, which can then be conveyed to people who may be using or considering using those drugs. Similar systems are already in place in the UK, and we should be moving towards implementing these types of interventions in the Irish context.

shutterstock_54181954 Source: Shutterstock/lady.diana

Drug trends 

In addition to the Ana Liffey project, campaign group Help Not Harm will also have teams offering help and advice to festival-goers at this year’s Electric Picnic.

It’s the second time at the festival for Help Not Harm, which will be providing drug welfare, awareness and outreach services at six stations throughout the Stradbally site, including out in the campsites.

The aim is provide a point of contact to link festival-goers with welfare services and other agencies at the festival site, the group’s co-founder Graham de Barra said.

The volunteers are trained in harm reduction, first aid and crisis support – and the team includes specialists like medical doctors from the HSE, nurses and social workers.

“It was really surprising to see the level of demand for the service,” at last year’s Electric Picnic, de Barra said.

“We’ve done this in the UK as well. There’s a real taboo around the topic – it’s strange, because people won’t tell you that they’ve taken anything initially.

“What it ends up often being is a mixture – polydrug use is the biggest problem that we saw at our welfare tent last year. We found that MDMA mixed with alcohol was the most common combination. This can be quite harmful because the purity of MDMA has gotten stronger, and it was particularly strong last year.

“Ketamine is one drug that’s on the rise – we see it a lot more in the UK at festivals. But I definitely see this trend increasing and I would expect to see a lot of ketamine this year as well. It might even surpass MDMA in terms of prevalence, but we’ll have to see.

All of this is mixed with alcohol of course – so that’s often another problem, because people make bad decisions when they’re on alcohol.

help Graham deBarra of Help Not Harm. Source: Help Not Harm

‘Non-judgemental’ 

Staff members from the Ana Liffey Drug Project are located in the Jimi Hendrix campsite this year, where they’re working in tandem with the Irish Red Cross to provide campers with information and advice.

Tony Duffin, who’s the organisation’s CEO, said they would be providing “evidence based harm reduction interventions” at the festival.

The drug service neither promotes nor denounces substance use, Duffin said – “but we’re aware some people attending music festivals do drink and take drugs, and everyone needs to work together to reduce the potential for harm”.

“Obviously, it is not safe to drink alcohol to excess. Similarly, it is safer not to take illicit or unknown drugs at all.

It is important that people can access accurate information and to have a non-judgemental harm reduction services available to them at events like this.

The Anna Liffey Drug Project released a harm reduction checklist in advance of the Electric Picnic. It advises festival-goers:

  • It is safer not to use illicit or unknown drugs at all
  • Do not purchase from a supplier you do not know: dealers at festivals do not know you and may never see you again
  • Do not use drugs alone: stay with your friends and do not leave anybody who is intoxicated on their own
  • Take a taster dose: remember – nobody can advise you on what is a safe dose of illicit or unknown drugs
  • Take breaks, get enough sleep, eat well and rehydrate
  • Don’t mix your drugs: alcohol and illicit or unknown drugs can mix to cause overdose and other adverse effects

na Members of the Ana Liffey team, who will be on duty at the festival this weekend. Source: Courtesy of Hot Press

An Garda Síochána will, of course, be on duty at the festival – and dozens of drug seizures are made over the weekend during the Electric Picnic each year. The gardaí said they had a “comprehensive” policing and security plan in place for this year’s event.

Read: ‘Of course we’ve changed our plan’: There will be heightened security at Electric Picnic this weekend > 

Read: 13 things we learned from a sneak peek at this year’s Electric Picnic >

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