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Irish Health Service Executive unveils drug harm-reduction initiative at this summer’s festivals

By | Published on Tuesday 23 May 2023

Live Music

Ireland’s Health Service Executive yesterday announced details of a drug harm-reduction initiative that it will be running at music festivals across the country this summer, building on a pilot scheme run at Electric Picnic last year.

The initiative includes a drug monitoring programme, via which festival-goers will be able to anonymously submit drugs to experts through so called surrender bins, especially substances that might be a cause for concern. Those drugs are tested and if specific issues are identified – for example if drugs are circulating that are of a particularly high strength or have been mixed with other substances – real time alerts will be posted via social media.

Commenting on the scheme, Professor Eamon Keenan – National Clinical Lead for Addiction Services at the HSE – says: “This approach will improve our drug monitoring capabilities and help to tailor our harm-reduction services in Ireland … We can access drugs in a safe, non-judgemental manner to quickly gain insight on what drugs may be in circulation and issue real time drug alerts about substances of concern to festival attendees via our social media channels”.

“As shown at the first phase conducted at Electric Picnic last summer, this approach has the potential to identify trends otherwise unknown”, he explains. “The HSE found trends of concern including high potency drugs, twelve new psychoactive substances and four drugs which had never been identified before in Ireland”.

“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”, he goes on. “New drugs are continuing to emerge and we must be aware of the risks they pose, in particular the risks of overdose and mental health problems”.

He then concludes: “While the HSE recognises that it is safer not to use drugs at all and there is always risk, the campaign has been developed in response to a changing drug landscape in Ireland and aims to offer people who use drugs practical harm-reduction information on how they can reduce health harms if they choose to use”.

Similar drug testing schemes have been run at festivals in other countries, including in the UK where the charity The Loop has done lots of interesting work over the years. Some such schemes also directly feedback to the individuals who provide the drugs to be tested.

Obviously the people running these initiatives need to work in collaboration with police, to ensure festival-goers who provide what are usually illegal drugs for testing don’t face legal consequences. Like the HSE in Ireland, most police forces would officially prefer there to be no illegal drugs in circulation at festivals, but some also recognise that a pragmatic approach focused on harm-reduction is the sensible strategy to adopt.

The HSE’s initiative also provides some practical advice for people taking drugs at festivals, including “tell your friends if you decide to use drugs at the festival; start low and go slow, take a small test dose; avoid mixing drugs, including alcohol and prescription medication; and if you or a friend becomes physically or mentally unwell … be honest with medics about what was taken, they are there to help”.