'Young people are curious': Festival season prompts calls for drugs to be made safer through testing

Nicole Ryan, from Millstreet, lost her brother, Alex, aged 18, when he took the synthetic N-Bomb drug. Now a pre-accredited addiction counsellor, she is spreading her harm-reduction message through her education programme, Alex’s Adventure.
'Young people are curious': Festival season prompts calls for drugs to be made safer through testing

Nicole Ryan, from Millstreet, lost her brother, Alex, aged 18, when he took the synthetic N-Bomb drug. Now a pre-accredited addiction counsellor, she is spreading her harm-reduction message through her education programme, Alex’s Adventure. Pic Darragh Kane

WARNINGS have been issued about new psychoactive substances being sold to festival-goers under the guise of MDMA pills or cannabis.

It follows calls from a Cork woman for pop-up drug-testing labs to be introduced at music festivals, similar to those in the UK.

Nicole Ryan, from Millstreet, lost her brother, Alex, aged 18, when he took the synthetic N-Bomb drug. Now a pre-accredited addiction counsellor, she is spreading her harm-reduction message through her education programme, Alex’s Adventure.

She is proposing that a similar model to the Glastonbury Festival be made available in Ireland, with a drug-testing lab for those in attendance.

UK organisation The Loop introduces pop-up labs to festivals and other major events through an initiative supported by local police forces. Organisers of the event enable the testing of drugs when they are found, surrendered, or seized on site.

Meanwhile, the HSE has already launched a campaign for people attending Irish music festivals, offering them practical drug harm-reduction information, as well as advice on how to reduce the risks associated with drug use.

However, Ms Ryan said that drug testing needs to be introduced to music festivals and major events across Ireland to save lives.

“The shame and hiding away is killing people,” Ms Ryan said. 

“Testing is a phenomenal idea that is being rolled out with great success in the UK. It’s such a practical step to either deter someone from using or ensure they are staying safe while using.”

She listed the potential benefits of drug testing at festivals.

“If I can get something tested that I believe is ketamine that turns out to be the N-bomb, my life is saved. I know what’s in it so I’m not going to take it. It can be disposed of there and then and I don’t get a criminal conviction or die. If I do decide to take it and, God forbid, I suffer an overdose, then emergency services will be able to treat me faster knowing what I have taken.”

Ms Ryan underlined the challenges facing young people attending festivals.

“People are scared of gardaí and, in the event of an emergency or overdose, nobody knows what to do.

“The reality is that the curiosity of a young person is powerful. They might feel pressured by peers or just be looking for a new experience. No matter what the reason is behind their drug use, the most important thing is that deaths are prevented from happening. This might take time and effort, but it’s better than people overdosing and dying, while others pretend this isn’t happening.”

Professor Eamon Keenan, HSE’s national clinical lead, addiction services, said it is important that people are informed about worrying drug trends across Europe.

Nicole Ryan from Millstreet, after receiving a diploma in Substance Misuse and Addiction, at the Adult Continuing Education Autumn conferrings at UCC.Picture: David Keane.
Nicole Ryan from Millstreet, after receiving a diploma in Substance Misuse and Addiction, at the Adult Continuing Education Autumn conferrings at UCC.Picture: David Keane.

“As we approach the 2022 festival season, it is important that we keep up to date in relation to drug trends across Europe,” Prof Keenan said. “Although we have limited access to drug-market monitoring in Ireland, we are aware of the emergence of some very worrying trends across Europe.

“As well as high-strength drugs appearing, as seen recently in the UK, we are currently concerned about the possibility of new psychoactive substances being mis-sold as MDMA pills or crystal, cocaine, and cannabis. New drugs are continuing to emerge and we must be aware of the risks they pose.”

Prof Keenan also offered some harm-reduction guidance, adding: “Our advice remains that it’s safer not to use at all. However, if you do, this summer festival season, it’s important to ‘start very low and go slow’ to reduce your risk of coming to harm.”

Nicki Killeen, volunteer trainer and emerging drug trends project manager with the HSE, spoke of steps the organisation is taking to promote harm reduction at festivals.

Nicole Ryan, from Millstreet, lost her brother, Alex, aged 18, when he took the synthetic N-Bomb drug.
Nicole Ryan, from Millstreet, lost her brother, Alex, aged 18, when he took the synthetic N-Bomb drug.

“Our festival volunteers will offer advice at events about drugs,” Ms Killeen said. “We will work with some event organisers and medical teams to help reduce harm and keep people safe.

“Our new volunteer teams will offer non-judgmental and confidential support. They will operate between the festival community and medical teams to create a safe space for people who use drugs.”

She outlined the measures being taken at festivals, including the Indiependence Festival being held in Mitchelstown this month.

“The teams will be at an information tent, as well as through outreach teams in campsites and music arenas.

“It is important that people don’t delay getting medical help at events.

“Sometimes, overconsumption could start as a headache or muscle pain, which people may not be aware of.

“Our new booklets will provide people who use drugs with information about drug emergencies, trends, and practical steps to reduce the harms.”

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