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Drugs such as cocaine, ketamine and MDMA have increased in potency (file photo) Yuri Arcurs/Alamy Stock Photo
Drug Testing

Potent drugs such as nitazenes could appear at Irish festivals this summer, HSE expert warns

Nitazine, a powerful synthetic opioid, caused dozens of overdoses in Dublin and Cork late last year.

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised that powerful opioids could be sold as other forms of drugs during the summer festival season in Ireland.

Professor Eamon Keenan, the HSE’s Clinical Lead on Addiction Services, warned that drug users don’t always know what they’re taking or how potent it is.

Keenan was speaking at the launch of the HSE’s Safer Nightlife Programme which will test drugs at four festivals this summer. The initiative, which is in its third year, aims to reduce drug-related harms and monitor trends.

In recent years, drugs such as cocaine, ketamine and MDMA have increased in potency, Keenan noted.

Speaking to The Journal at the event, he said: “The trends in Europe are mirrored in the trends in Ireland, so what happens in Europe happens here. The potency and the strength is the big thing.”

Keenan said there are also concerns that nitazine – a powerful synthetic opioid which caused dozens of overdoses among heroin users in Dublin and Cork late last year – could be erroneously sold as other substances.

“In terms of the overall drug situation, everybody’s very worried about nitazines,” Keenan explained.

“We had that before Christmas in Ireland, we had to respond to that very quickly. But that was within a different population, that was within the opioid population.”

Keenan said nitazine was identified in a benzodiazepine tablet in Finland, sparking concerns that people who have never taken opioids before could end up accidentally ingesting a very powerful drug.

“If it comes into a cohort of people who haven’t got any tolerance to opioids, then that would be a concern,” he said.

“I’m not saying nitazines are going to be at the festivals now, but because they’re appearing in tablets in other parts of Europe, we would be concerned about that.

“That’s why we have our drug monitoring lab to be able to identify that. If it does occur in Ireland, we want to be able to say that very quickly.”

Surrender bins

This summer, the HSE will be providing ‘back of house’ drug checking at the following festivals:

  • Mother Pride Block Party on 28 -29 June
  • District 8 Garden Party on 9 August
  • Electric Picnic on 16-18 August
  • District X on 21 September

People can anonymously drop off drugs to be tested in so-called ‘surrender bins’ at the HSE tent, where medical staff will be on hand to provide treatment and advice as needed.

Around 220 drugs were tested after being surrendered at three festivals last summer.

There is an agreement between the HSE, An Garda Síochána and festival organisers that the tent is not policed. Keenan explained:

If you talk to your GP about something and you walk out, you don’t expect to see a policeman or a guard in the surgery. It’s exactly the same [in the medical tent]. It’s a health space, the guards are not policing it.

He added that it’s obviously safer to not take illegal drugs but, if a person does so and feels unwell, they should seek medical attention as quickly as possible.


A number of people who attended the HSE’s tent at festivals last summer experienced psychosis – where they lost touch with reality – after using drugs such as MDMA, cocaine, ketamine and cannabis.

Keenan said there are also growing concerns about vapes containing HHC (hexahydrocannabinol), a semisynthetic cannabinoid.

As previously reported by The Journal, medical experts have called for HHC to be made illegal amid growing concerns it is triggering psychotic episodes in certain people.

HHC can be very potent and has similar properties and effects to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is illegal.

Keenan said HHC “does seem to be driving presentations to our addiction services, particularly amongst young people”, adding that around 20% of people seeking help from these services “are coming as a result of using HHC”.

Potent MDMA and ketamine

Also speaking at the event, Nicki Killeen, the HSE’s Project Manager on Emerging Drug Trends, explained how the potency of many drugs has increased in recent years.

“Heading into this summer, we’re quite concerned with a few things, one of them being MDMA products – pills, powders and crystals. We know they vary in strength.

Last year, we found products which ranged from containing 50 milligrams of MDMA to over 240 milligrams. To contextualise that, that’s over two times the average adult dose.

“So one product could contain enough that could lead to a drug emergency, that is a key message. Obviously, it’s safer not to use.

“But if people are doing drugs we want them to come and talk to us, we want them to practice harm reduction, we want them to be aware of the trends that are out there and to be conscious of that heading into the summer season.”

Killeen said she is also “quite concerned about ketamine reemerging as a trend”.

“It’s not a new drug, it’s been around for a while, but what we are seeing is people using it in risky ways.

“They’re using too much too soon, [last summer] people were consuming it quite fast, and using it with other substances.

For example, if you use ketamine with alcohol, it can lead to you vomiting or becoming unwell.

Killeen said some people underestimate the impact of club drugs like ketamine, saying this substance can cause mental health issues “they weren’t prepared for or weren’t aware of”.

Some people who took ketamine at festivals last summer started to experience disassociation or “feeling an out of body detachment”, she added.

A number of people who sought medical advice at the HSE tent also reported experiencing intense panic, anxiety or insomnia.

“Some other people had more extreme issues emerging where they were very unwell and very frightened,” Killeen said.

“The onsite medics are amazing, they manage that and respond. The message is don’t be afraid to reach out and get help whether it’s physical or mental health, the support is there on site.”

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