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The case for introducing drug testing at Irish festivals 

The case for introducing drug testing at Irish festivals 

Kelly Doherty

Every summer sees a fresh set of festival announcements with constant hype surrounding artist line ups, ticket rushes and punters building up to the best weekends on their calendars.  Behind the festival outfit preparations and sleeping bag scrambles however the season draws up a much more serious discussion.

Increasingly every year, consciousness of festival drug usage has been becoming a hotter topic with HSE harm reduction campaigns and organisations like Help Not Harm ensuring the public and powers that be don’t get to ignore the drug-related issues young people face. 

Research shows that recreational drug usage is a regular and constant occurrence for Irish young people. A 2014 Eurobarometer poll showed that psychoactive drug usage among 15 to 24-year-olds in Ireland is the highest in Europe.

According to the National Drugs Survey 2015, “around 75 per cent of over 300 Trinity respondents… said they had used illegal drugs”. These statistics are indicative of a country wherein recreational drug usage is a reality and it’s an established fact that festivals are often the location where young people find themselves engaging with these substances.

Whilst many people enjoy their festival weekend and use of drugs, that’s not the reality for all. Last weekend’s Indiependence Festival saw the drug-related tragic death of a young man with his whole life ahead of him and too often news headlines tell a tale of yet another festival experience turned to heartbreak by drug usage.  

As a response to this, the aforementioned groups like Help Not Harm have been pushing for measures to counteract and prevent the worst possible outcome of recreational drug usage. One such measure is the introduction of drug testing facilities at Irish festivals.

So how exactly does drug testing work?

“Drug testing is nothing new at festivals, but generally it involves the police taking samples as part of an investigation into a drug-related emergency or death ,” Help Not Harm member and Chill Welfare volunteer Fergal Eccles explains. “How The Loop [British drug testing organisation] differs, is by offering this service ‘front-of-house’ to drug users, potentially before they are involved in an emergency. Festival punters can then hand a sample to The Loop who professionally screen the sample. Afterwards, anything remaining is destroyed. The festival-goer is informed of the sample’s contents, and is able to make an informed decision on whether to hand the rest of their supply up to be destroyed.”

Drug testing facilities have recently become a part of the British festival fabric with events like Boomtown and Bestival, amongst a handful of others, introducing the services to a favourable response. Mixmag reported that last year 8000 festival-goers availed of drug testing services and the statistics speak for themselves. The Loop say that drug testing resulted in 1-in-10 people handing in their drugs for police disposal whilst over half of the service users said they would use lower amounts than they had planned before. One festival that provided drug testing, Secret Garden Party, experienced a 95% drop in drug-related hospitalisation and across the board drug testing facilities have seen safety improvements.

“As a drug welfare worker at festivals, I have witnessed first-hand the benefit of drug testing services,” Eccles says. “Over the course of the weekend, we can easily service 1-5% of a festival. This can amount to thousands of individuals. We’ve found that festivals which introduced drug testing reduced this figure by nearly half, compared to years where drug testing was not present on site.” 

Political opposition to drug testing and harm reduction often re-uses the same tired logic historically associated with the war on drugs. In 2018, Dublin city councillor Mannix Flynn stated his opposition to HSE harm reduction campaigns claiming it was a ‘normalisation process’ for drugs and that the emphasis should be on the dangers of drug use. This may be all very well but that perspective is tried and tested and hasn’t succeeded.

“The single biggest barriers are co-operation from local police forces and government regulation. Drug workers must be able to handle and test substances on-site without fearing potential prosecution.” says Eccles.

“Many festival-punters in the UK don’t trust the authorities in any capacity and feel like they could potentially be targeted by police. Young people should never be afraid to seek help or advice, providing services like Drug Safety Testing will help to break down barriers between young people and police / medical authorities.”

Despite the barrage of ‘say no to drugs’ warnings every young person receives, each year huge amounts of festival-goers, newcomers and veterans, will continue to take drugs and face the very real ramifications of not knowing the contents or dangers of what they’ve bought. 

This summer saw the launch of HSE’s Safe Up Your Sesh campaign, another harm reduction toolkit targeting festival attendees with tips. It’s an admirable attempt to inform drug-users of the measures they should take to improve their safety and is well worth checking out for anyone considering using illegal drugs this summer.

However as often as well-meaning awareness campaigns are rolled out by HSE, it feels like they’re fighting a losing battle as long as politicians and festival promoters continue to prevent access to drug testing kits. If the state can acknowledge that knowledge is power in keeping people safe with drug usage, surely the greatest power would be the ability to know what exactly is in the drugs they’re consuming? Festivals and clubs following health and safety guidelines is a facade when their punters are constantly at a serious risk that could be lessened with the facilitation of drug testing faculties. 

What can you do on to push for drug testing facilities to be made available? “This is a multi-faceted problem, with no easy answer. It’s important we make it known to education centres, Student Unions and groups that represent young people nationally. We must also pressure our TDs and Senators to support or introduce legislation surrounding drug testing. Facilities that offer drug testing shouldn’t have to work within legal loopholes to operate,” Eccles says

“The number one thing an individual can do to fight the drug war, is join or donate to the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an international grassroots organisation across 13 countries. SSDP have overturned major laws across the US and Canada in regards to drug safety, on and off-campus. If there’s no chapter in your local institution you can always start one.”

Helpful links

Ana Liffey Drug Project will provide drug and alcohol welfare services at this years Electric Picnic festival. See their safety tips.
HSE Cocaine Harm reduction
What’s in the Pill? campaign
Information on GHB
Students for Sensible Drug Policy

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