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Drug-testing at Irish festivals: Government criticised for delays forming 'working group'

The working group was first floated in 2017 and was originally expected to be up and running earlier this year.

Cocaine, MDMA and Ketamine are being combined at festivals.
Cocaine, MDMA and Ketamine are being combined at festivals.
Image: Shutterstock/Drazen Zigic

A WORKING GROUP to tackle drug use at festivals will finally be established next month after first being announced over two years ago. 

It was first floated in the ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery‘ national drug strategy, launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Health Minister Simon Harris, and Minister with responsibility for drugs strategy Catherine Byrne, in July 2017.

The plan outlined a need to establish a working group to look at measures which could be introduced at venues where young people could be at risk due to mixing drugs with alcohol, including festivals and nightclubs. 

Other parts of the national strategy have been progressed, including reforms in how those found with drugs in their possession for personal use are reprimanded, and earlier this year Byrne said in response to a Dáil question that the working group would be set up by the end of June. 

That deadline was not met, but the Department of Health has now confirmed the group will be established next month. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson said: “As part of the National Drug and Alcohol Strategy ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery’ the HSE has committed to establishing a working group in September to examine the issue of emerging drug trends.” 

It added that the HSE has begun research in this area and previously launched a harm reduction campaign for festival-goers. 

Concerns have been raised over the delays in setting up the group and the length of time it will take to implement any agreed-upon measures.

“There is a focus on long-term planning with the working group because the strategy goes to 2025, which I respect,” Dawn Russell, Head of Services at the Ana Liffey Drug Project said. 

“The HSE has launched a series of harm-reduction campaigns recently which is helpful but we would welcome the working group being in place to establish more in depth interventions like drug checking.

There’s a serious level of mixing of different types of drugs for the first time at festivals, specifically a combination of MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, and alcohol, which is really risky.

The working group is expected to consider amnesty bins, where festival-goers could dispose of their drugs, and on-site drug testing, where they could have their drugs tested and analysed scientifically.

Drug testing at festivals and welfare teams could mean the difference between life and death for some, according to advocates of the proposals. 

Similar measures which have already been adopted in other countries across Europe. Festivals across the UK, The Netherlands, Spain and Portugal have introduced legal mobile drug-testing units on their sites. 

This would not work in Ireland at present, as current legislation dictates that anyone found in possession of drugs runs the risk of being charged. 

Russell said young people who are experimenting with drugs at these events want to talk about what they are taking before they do take it, but without testing on-site, they are at a loss. 

“When talking to people in their late teens and early 20s, they are saying they didn’t usually take drugs but they were taking them because they were in party mode, so we need to work hard with them.”

The Ana Liffey Drug Project has been working with organisers of Electric Picnic in Co Laois and Life festival in Co Westmeath, providing welfare support staff on the ground, and offering advice to people who might want to take drugs. 

“I really found at both festivals, EP in the last couple of years and Life this year, there is an openness and maturity in people coming to our drug workers… I was working with people from ages 18 to 25 and they were mature about it, and they were looking for help,” Russell said. 

“We had hundreds of people coming up and talking to us.”

‘Wake up call’

Sinn Féin’s Health Spokesperson, Louise O’Reilly said she was disappointed that the death of a teenager at the Indiependence festival in Cork, appears to be the wake up call needed for harm reduction to be taken seriously. 

“It’s hard to have confidence in the Department of Health and this working group when they’ve already missed their own deadline.” she said. 

“The answer we get is ‘we’re working on it’ but there’s no evidence of that, it seems like it’s not a priority. 

“It saddening to hear what happened, and of course sympathies to the family concerned, because what makes it even more tragic is when you consider that it was avoidable. 

“I think it’s unfortunate that it should take a headline-grabbing news story, and a death in this incidence, to get the Government to act, and really serve as a wake up call.”

She added the work of the group “needs to be done in a timely manner, no primary research is needed because we see best practice already happening in other European countries”. 

“If this working group is just another mechanism to delay any action then it won’t make any difference before next year’s festivals.”

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