'It shows us an awful lot about what’s on the market': Support for drug-testing at festivals 

A pilot on-site drug-testing programme took place at Electric Picnic earlier this year. Ellen O’Regan hears about its findings, its benefits, its shortcomings, and where we go from here.
'It shows us an awful lot about what’s on the market': Support for drug-testing at festivals 

Sinéad McNamara, senior biochemist, HSE National Drug Treatment Centre Laboratory Services; Nicki Killeen, project manager, HSE Social Inclusion; Public Health and National Drugs Strategy Minister Frank Feighan; Eamon Keenan, national clinical lead, HSE Addiction Services; and Melvin Benn; director of Festival Republic, which organises Electric Picnic. Picture: Sasko Lazarov

THE first ‘back of house’ drug-testing pilot at the Electric Picnic music festival in September warned attendees about any dangerous circulating substances, and built more data on drug trends in Ireland.

The HSE has published the findings from the pioneering programme, with festival-goers anonymously surrendering drugs to HSE bins at Electric Picnic, which were rapidly analysed in an on-site temporary laboratory.

Alerts were then issued to the public, harm-reduction services, and onsite medics about any dangerous substances at the festival.

Of the 46 samples that were turned in to HSE bins for testing, 12 novel substances were identified, three of which had never before been detected in Ireland and three that led to risk communications being issued.

The testing also showed that it can be impossible to tell which substances are higher risk, as six identical looking ‘Mybrand’ skull pills contained anywhere from 36mg to 235mg of MDMA.

Cork campaigner 

Natalie O’Regan, a Cork drugs policy reform campaigner, who was volunteering with Help Not Harm at the Electric Picnic welfare tent, said the warnings being issued to the public had an immediate impact.

“For only 46 samples tested, to have had three big alerts come out of that is huge,” Ms O’Regan said. 

“We had people coming in saying, ‘I’m after taking that, am I OK? I didn’t know what I was taking,’ or we had people saying to us, ‘My friend has that, I’m not taking it now’.”

Ms O’Regan said the testing of the potency of MDMA, never previously done in Ireland, gave an insight into how little we know about what’s on the market here.

“Up until now, we’ve had little to no information about the dosage within MDMA,” Ms O’Regan said.

 “It shows us an awful lot about what’s on the market and how little the black market can be trusted. You could take one tablet, not feel anything, and then take another and it’s five or six times the dose of the first one.”

Shane Dunne, managing director of Mitchelstown-based festival Indiependence, said the data gathered from the Electric Picnic pilot can “only be good from an education perspective and a harm-reduction perspective”, and that he is happy to support and work alongside the HSE to roll out the testing programme to other festivals around Ireland.

“Particularly with younger people who are maybe experimenting for the first time, and they’re not educated in what they’re doing, there’s huge risks there,” Mr Dunne said. “At the end of the day, if the HSE or the event’s organisers aren’t going to be involved in educating those people, then you leave the education up to the drug dealer, and I’m not sure how much we can trust that person to tell the truth about what someone is getting.”

While the 46 samples have proven the value of the pilot, they are likely to be a minuscule percentage of all drugs at the music festival, which was attended by 70,000 people.

Ms O’Regan said the sample size was not larger because of people’s fear around arrest.

“There was an awful lot of drugs up at EP and only 46 samples were tested,” Ms O’Regan said.

 “There is obviously something behind it that made people not use it... From conversations I had with people, they all had it in the back of their head the gardaí were around and they didn’t want to get arrested.”

She said there were no gardaí ‘hanging around’ the amnesty bin waiting to catch people, and that gardaí and the HSE were co-operating at the festival, but that people may need more formal assurance to participate in this kind of testing programme.

“There has to be decriminalisation alongside any sort of amnesty bin or surrender bin. If you take that fear away from people, they will be more likely to use it,” she said.

Ms O’Regan said that the pilot raises wider questions about the need for policy changes around the criminalisation of drugs, as policing for personal use continues to consume the resources of the gardaí and the courts and fails to address problematic drug use.

“If you’re having a joint on a Saturday night or taking MDMA at a festival, no matter what, the fear of arrest is always in the back of your head. When you look at drug taking, in my opinion, sometimes the most harmful aspect is criminalisation,” Ms O’Regan said.

“Dragging people through the courts, for a joint or a bit of cocaine on a Saturday night, any personal drug use… to be left with a fine or a criminal conviction or custodial sentence… it only adds to the harms drugs cause,” she said, adding that any decriminalisation of drugs would have to be allied with greater investment in addiction support services.

Mr Dunne, meanwhile, said that recent changes to archaic liquor-licensing laws could indicate possible changes in drugs policy reform, to bring Ireland more in step with our European counterparts.

In the UK, front-of-house drugs testing allows people to have drugs tested within minutes, returned to them along with the results, and they are then free to make an informed decision about whether they will take them.

“I think that’s something that will probably happen here at some point, but I think we are probably a number of years away,” Mr Dunne said.

“At the end of the day, what [we] would prefer is that people didn’t take drugs.

“There’s a risk involved no matter what you’re taking,” Mr Dunne said. “But we do need to be realistic. It is happening, it’s going to continue to happen, and it’s gone up over the years, especially with the younger generation… here’s how we can try to minimise risk and bring down harm reduction.”

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