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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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'A lot of questions about ketamine' - keeping people drug-safe at Electric Picnic's welfare tent

The Ana Liffey Drug Project made its debut at this year’s festival – and it proved to be a busy three days for the volunteers.

Electric Picnic festival UK group Elbow performing on day three of this year's Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

ABOUT 55,000 PEOPLE attended Electric Picnic last weekend at Stradbally in Co Laois.

The festival is nearly twice the size it was 10 years ago. And for many of those who attend, taking something not especially legal is fundamental to the experience.

There are roughly 100 gardaí on-site now each year to police the goings-on, but in 2017, for the first time, the Ana Liffey Drug Project was on hand to deal with the issue of drugs in a more collaborative way.

The project, one of Dublin’s best known (it’s been operating for nearly 40 years) ‘harm reduction’ services, was making its festival debut in the Picnic’s welfare tent, alongside the Irish Red Cross, at the Jimi Hendrix campsite.

For three days, a staff of 11 volunteers manned the project stall from 2pm until midnight, talking to people who had taken something, dealing with people who were planning on taking something, and advising friends on how best to manage the health of their under-the-influence compatriots.

“These were health issues,” Ana Liffey’s chief executive Tony Duffin told TheJournal.ie.

There were gardaí and security all over the place, walking through and patrolling, but they understand, I think, that in our tent it’s a welfare issue.

ep3 Source: ALDP

“The police are there to stop drugs coming in. But, look, everyone can agree that drugs are taken at festivals.”

For Ana Liffey, the goal is to “engage people and keep them as safe as possible”.

How did they get on at their first Electric Picnic? Not bad at all. Over three days 71 people, about 24 daily, engaged with the volunteers in the welfare tent. It’s a number Duffin says he’s “happy enough” with.

Under the influence

“Well, that’s who turned up. We weren’t asked to do outreach so we were pretty happy with that,” he said.

We saw people under the influence, and we saw people who were planning to take drugs, and were happy to talk to them, to talk them down if need be. We had people who were anxious and paranoid, and we were able to keep them safe.

Of the 71 people who presented, 72% (51) were male and 28% (20) female. All were aged in their late teens and early 20s (“it’s a cohort we’ve picked up on for certain,” says Duffin).

The busiest time was Friday evening between 7pm and 10pm.

The list of substances being ingested, meanwhile, was extensive: alcohol, cannabis, MDMA, LSD, G, Methamphetamine – and that’s just what people told Ana Liffey they had either taken or were planning to take.

“People were mostly asking about MDMA and ecstasy – how to handle friends who have taken too much, or how to minimise the negative effects,” says Duffin.

One guy in with the medics said he’d done a gram of MDMA, but his vitals were low and his heart-rate slow which would suggest that wasn’t what he’d taken.
People wanted to know about LSD – how to take it slowly and what to expect. We had a lot of questions about ketamine as well.

ep1 Source: ALDP

To be clear – Ana Liffey’s mantra is that the safest approach is simply not to take drugs. But if you’re going to take them, the project’s goal is to help people “make informed decisions and receive the best support and advice they can possibly get”.

A lot of people came to the tent to talk about more than just drugs also – free condoms and STI advice being top of a lot of people’s agendas.

“We give out all kinds of advice – we tell people to only purchase from a supplier they know, never to use drugs alone, always take a taster dose – that kind of thing,” Duffin says.

Engaging with friends of those who have taken something we found was very useful – if the person was too medicated or vulnerable to take on advice and information, the team worked with the medic on duty to ensure the person was physically safe.

What comes next

All in all, a pretty satisfactory first appearance for Ana Liffey. But there’s always room for improvement.

“Lots of people asked about drug checking, they wanted to know why we didn’t have it available,” says Duffin.

For the uninitiated, drug checking does pretty much what it says on the tin – a kind of portable laboratory takes a sample of a drug that someone wishes to verify, and then tells the person exactly what’s in it (“generally speaking they won’t be getting the sample back!” says Duffin). It’s a process that is used with a high level of accuracy on the continent. Portable, personal checking units are also available over the web, though Duffin says they’re not to be trusted.

As things stand, checking hasn’t yet landed in Ireland, and it wasn’t available at Electric Picnic in 2017. The issue is being considered as part of the government’s latest national drug strategy however.

“We’d definitely like to see it here – because people often don’t know what they’re taking. They may have what they think is MDMA, but it’ll turn out it’s actually PMA – which is far more toxic at lower doses,” says Duffin. “So you take one, and you think it’s weak ecstasy, so you take another and then you’re in big trouble.”

Checking is definitely the way forward.

Read: ‘We said it would be good to get 50′: Homeless organisation collects over 1,000 sleeping bags left at Electric Picnic

Read: PHOTOS: Tens of thousands flock to Laois for Electric Picnic

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