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Drug testing at music festivals will be ready to be rolled out by summer 2021

Junior Minister Frank Feighan says a working group has looked at the issues of drug testing and amnesty bins.

Image: Shutterstock/Anton Gvozdikov

DRUG TESTING AT IRISH music festivals might finally get the green light by summer 2021, according to Minister for State with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan. 

The HSE began discussions last year with organisations that could provide drug-testing at festivals.

In 2017, the government announced that, as part of the national drug strategy, a working group involving health professionals, festival organisers and advocacy groups would be established to examine harm-reduction measures among drug-users at festivals.

A delay in setting up the group prompted criticism from politicians and advocates who were concerned at the length of time it has taken for the group to even be established.

Despite delays, it is now expected that the working group’s recommendations will be completed by the first quarter of next year.

Summer 2021

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, Feighan said the working group has looked at all the evidence of drug testing at events and amnesty bins for drugs, adding:

“They are finalising their work and it is anticipated that the guidelines or recommendations will be published early in first quarter 2021.”

When asked if drug testing facilities could be available at music festivals when they might be able to get back up and running next summer after the Covid crisis, the minister said: 

“Absolutely. Absolutely, yes.”

One option open to the group is establishing locations with permanent laboratories that could test drugs ahead of a festival or event. 

It would involve someone who is going to a festival in a couple of weeks’ time, to go in and drop off their batch of drugs, they get tested and a result is given. 

Such facilities have worked in places such as in Holland. 

A second option which could be introduced in Ireland involves on-site testing at festivals which has been used in a number of countries including Spain and Portugal. 

The testing takes place in a tent or at a venue on-site but there would be warnings that the testing can’t guarantee safety.

One topic on the working group’s agenda involves establishing amnesty bins at festivals where drug-users can discard of drugs. 

In this scenario, the drugs could be removed from the bins and tested nearby, and if a harmful substance is discovered a warning alert could be sent – with the help of the festival promoters – to attendees.  

Feighan said he was keen for work to progress, stating that he provided €146,000 in the Budget to go towards drug monitoring trends and early harm reduction, which takes in looking at drug use at festivals and the night time economy. 

Pandemic delays

It had originally been envisaged that the measures would be in place for the festival season of 2020, but with the pandemic, there were delays.

The HSE did try to roll out pilot drug testing services at two music festivals last summer, but failed to get the green light from gardaí. Legal concerns were raised at the time.

Drug-testing in Ireland would require a change in legislation that would allow drug-users to admit to carrying quantities of drugs in order to have them tested.

In what was seen as a first step this month, people caught with a small amount of cannabis for personal use can now avoid a criminal conviction if they admit the offence and accept an adult caution. 

It is the first time a drugs offence can be deemed not to be a criminal offence. 

Feighan said he welcomes this month’s announcement, stating that it is “very positive”. 

“We are committed to a health-led approach to the safe use of drugs,” he said.

The minister said work is underway to extend that provision to other drugs.

“I understand the different justices engaging with the AG to extending that ca caution to other substances as soon as possible,” he said. 

Injecting centres

Speaking about the much-delayed injection centre in Dublin, the minister said it is “urgently needed”.

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A series of setbacks means Dublin probably won’t be getting supervised injecting centres any time soon.

Injecting centres – which would be medically supervised buildings in which drug users could inject – have been a part of government drug policy for a number of years.

The current programme for government carries over previous commitments to get a centre opened in the capital so as to “reduce the number of lives lost through overdose”.

“It is stalled,” Feighan told TheJournal.ie.

“We’ve established that this supervised injection facility is urgently needed to reduce the number of deadly overdoses,” he added. 

Plans to build a medically supervised injecting facility at Merchants Quay Ireland’s Riverbank Centre on Dublin city’s south quays have been in the works for over three years but objections have led to serious delays. 

In July 2019, the council refused planning permission for the addiction and homelessness charity to build the centre following fierce resistance from local businesses and residents and the nearby St Audoen’s National School.

But in December 2019, planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanala for what would be Ireland’s first supervised injecting facility. 

However, earlier this year, the primary school brought a High Court challenge to the planning permission. The court date is set for June 2021.

Citizen’s Assembly

The programme for government also commits to a Citizen’s Assembly on drugs, but due to the ongoing public health emergency, Feighan will not commit to a date for when it will be held. 

“The Citizen’s Assembly is something that we want realised, and are determined to deliver, but the restrictions certainly haven’t helped in getting it up and running,” he said. 

However, Feighan said the government has learned from other experiences, and there could be “new ways of working” that could inform how future Citizen’s Assemblies are conducted.

“It is at an early stage,” he added.

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