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Pill testing kits, chill-out rooms and free water: How to reduce harm from taking drugs in nightclubs

A new European guide on responding to drug problems was released today.

Image: Shutterstock/Anthony Mooney

WHAT CAN BE done to prevent harm from drug and alcohol use at festivals? How can countries respond to the problems of older heroin users? How can employers respond to drug taking in the workplace?

These are the kind of questions addressed in a new European guide on responding to drug use and the social and health harms it can cause from the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA).

The guide looks at prevalent issues around different forms of drug taking and draws on data and insights from 30 different countries (with Ireland among them).

It is designed to be an overview of all the actions and interventions currently available to address the consequences of illicit drug use and can be used in the future from a public planning perspective.

The guide focuses in on different groups and cultures of drug use and different environments in which they are used.

Drug use in nightlife, festivals and other recreational settings

One culture the guide looks into is drug and alcohol use in festival and nightlife settings.

It links this recreational use to a number of social issues like acute harm, aggressive behaviour, drug dealing and possible longer terms problems like addiction.

In terms of prevention or harm reduction, the guide says that information can be disseminated to people taking drugs in recreational settings informing them of the issues around taking drugs. This info can be supported by online materials informing people of the dangers and potential harms.

However, as the guide points out, this sort of approach has very little evidence which shows any behavioural changes arising out of this sort of information.

Environmental strategies have a better evidence base. These can include measures like reducing excessive consumption, or creating safer spaces at venues: Things like reducing crowding, providing chill-out rooms, serving free water can be used to try to reduce harm.

Other interventions involve training nightclub and festival staff in first aid and having rapid response measures ready.

One approach which is growing across Europe are drug-checking services (also known as pill testing services). This involves chemically testing a user’s drugs to provide information on the content of the drugs (to determine what’s actually in the sample).

The measure can be effective for informing users what is actually in the drug they are taking. For example a user may think they are taking a pill made up of mostly the drug MDMA, while testing that pill may reveal different more potent or more harmful substances.

While testing is taking place in a festival of nightclub setting with a mobile kit, advice and counselling can then be given to the user.

However, mobile testing kits are controversial, with critics saying they are not fully reliable and may service the effect of normalising drug use and giving the user a false sense of security when using.

“Any assessment of these arguments is hampered by the lack of robust studies and the difficulties in generalising given the very different approaches and models used,” the guide states.

Nevertheless, given the growing importance of synthetic drugs in the European market, including high potency synthetic opioids, any response that may reduce risks merits careful consideration and evaluation.

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Other groups and environments 

The guide gives similar advice for various other groups using illicit drugs and the environments in which they are used.

These include:

  • Older people with problematic opioid use
  • Women with drug problems
  • Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers
  • Workplaces
  • Schools and colleges

Commenting on the guide, EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel said that it was providing a map for navigating the public health issues posed by drug use.

“This innovative new guide surveys some of the main public health challenges in the drugs field today and provides a map with which to navigate the various stages of designing, targeting and implementing effective responses,” he said.

“To remain relevant, those involved in responding to drug problems must be prepared to adapt, innovate and develop new partnerships.

This practical guide equips them with the tools to respond to the drug problems of today, but also to prepare for those of tomorrow.

The guide will be updated and produced every three years in order to provide the most relevant information on prevailing drug trends.

You can view the report in full here

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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