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Talks underway between HSE and labs that could carry out drug-testing at festivals

A senior HSE doctor has outlined a number of ways drug-testing could be introduced in Ireland.

Testing on and off-site will be considered by a working group next month.
Testing on and off-site will be considered by a working group next month.
Image: Shutterstock/dwphotos

THE HSE HAS begun discussions with organisations that could provide drug-testing at festivals ahead of a working group, tasked with tackling the issue, beginning next month. 

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 be established, particularly after a 19-year-old lost his life at a Cork festival two weeks ago. 

However, a senior HSE doctor told TheJournal.ie that a team has begun liaising with a number of bodies that could provide drug-testing in Ireland. 

Dr Eamon Keenan, the HSE’s national clincal lead in addiction services, said there was “an interesting appetite” among the parties who have laboratories capable of testing drugs before and during events. 

“We have reached out to laboratories and we have had a number of discussions with them in relation to drug-testing and they are keen on it,” he said. 

“If you’re looking at drug testing, you have to have a good machine, be able to identify quantity and identify unknown substances, otherwise you give a false sense of security. 

“So we’re at a point where there is this expertise and knowledge and there is an interesting appetite for it.”

Keenan indicated that there were a number of organisations in a variety of locations throughout the country involved in discussions at this stage, including parts of the education and health sector. 

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.

Options

However, if legislation here was changed, and brought in line with other European countries that have successfully introduced drug-testing, there would be a number of options available to explore, according to Keenan.

One option involves establishing locations with permanent laboratories that could test drugs ahead of a festival or event. 

“This option would be fixed-site testing – an example is if you are going to a festival in a couple of weeks’ time, you go in and you drop off your batch of drugs, they get tested and they give you a result. 

“There’s a big thing about the night-time economy in some cities across Europe where these types of facilities are available and they’ve worked, such as in Holland. So this could be done here in a hospital or at a health care facility.”

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. 

“There’s testing that occurs in a tent or at a venue on-site but we have to remember that testing can’t guarantee safety and just because you test something it still doesn’t mean it’s safe. 

“You could still take a reaction to drugs, so our message remains that it is always safest to not take drugs.”

Amnesty bin testing 

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 festival-goers. 

“There’s an interesting concept known as back-house testing,” Keenan explains. 

“This is where you work with law enforcement and any drugs seized or discarded at festivals are taken to a site nearby and tested. 

“If there is anything untoward in them then you send an alert out via the promoters. This happened at the Boomtown festival [in the UK], they had back-house testing, they identified PMA [high strength ecstasy] and put an alert out in real-time.”

Keenan also warned against ordering testing kits online, and using throwaway kits at festivals, saying “they give a false sense of security because they only test for one particular substance but don’t tell you the strength of that substance”. 

“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about those kits but I’d be very reluctant to look at those going forward.”

The HSE has been carrying out research over this festival season, attending three events – Higher Vision, Boxed Off and Body and Soul. 

It’s encouraging anyone who attends festivals to take part in a survey at drugs.ie where there is also information and supports on drugs and alcohol use. 

Research gathered will inform future recommendations for harm reduction in Ireland and form part of a larger HSE campaign which has seen posters and advice distributed to festival-goers over the recent summer months. 

“From our point of view, this was the first time the HSE made an effort to target festivals with harm reduction information. 

“This has been interesting and a learning curve, and what we learned is to get the information out there as early as possible. 

“People that engaged with us on the day might have taken substances already so we want to get the information to them before this point.” 

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