Drug users are “more blind now than ever before” to the dangers of what they are putting into their bodies, An Garda Síochána’s top expert on drugs has warned.
Speaking ahead of one of the busiest festival weekends, Detective Sergeant Brian Roberts, said gardaí undertake both “overt and covert” operations at festivals and warned those attending that there would be “no tolerance” of drugs.
Det Sgt Roberts, from to the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, said a State working group was for the first time examining measures aimed at reducing the harm posed by drugs at festivals, such as amnesty bins and drug testing.
He said it was more likely that a pilot of an amnesty bin, where users can lawfully dispose of their drugs on entering a festival, would be tried first, as drug testing involved a “lot of legal and ethical issues” and would be “a much bigger step”.
There is an ongoing campaign in Britain for drug testing facilities, fuelled by two drug deaths at Portsmouth festival last May. Groups such as the Ana Liffey Drug Project are calling for similar facilities here.
The garda’s comments follow the recent launch of a HSE harm reduction campaign in relation to cocaine on the back of increased usage, treatment data, and higher purity levels. The HSE previously warned about “high dose batches of ecstasy in circulation” and advised users to test a tablet by taking a quarter of it.
Last month, customs and gardaí seized 30kg of MDMA (ecstasy) powder, along with 20kg of ketamine, one of the biggest hauls of both drugs in years.
Det Sgt Roberts told the Irish Examiner that drug users do not know what they are buying.
“The era we are in now is that when somebody takes a powder or a pill they genuinely don’t know what’s in it,” he said.
He said the European drugs agency is monitoring more than 700 new psychoactive substances which may be sold instead of, or mixed with, mainstream drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy.
“That’s a public health concern,” he said. “People are more blind now than ever before in terms of the dangers of what they are putting into their bloodstream.”
He said the average strength of an ecstasy tablet is around 120mg, but it can range from 50mg to 300-400mg, the latter being “extremely dangerous”.
Tests on the blue ‘Punisher’ pills linked to the Portsmouth deaths suggested they had “a strength over 330mg” — and these tablets have been reported in Ireland.
Det Sgt Roberts said gardaí deploy “overt and covert” operations at festivals and that some festivals could have 400 arrests, mostly for possession.
The message is basically to make people aware that from a drugs perspective there is no tolerance of drug prevalence at these festivals,” he said.
Under the national drugs strategy, a working group is tasked with examining amnesty bins and drug testing.Det Sgt Roberts said they had “people over to give presentations” and the group was at the stage of “examining international precedent”.
He said there were “a lot of legal and ethical issues to consider” with pill testing. He thought it was more likely that amnesty bins would be piloted first.
Analysis: Drug warning as festival season hits peak
There is “no doubt” that the strength of ecstasy pills has increased, with some dosages at “extremely dangerous” levels, writes.
That’s the assessment of An Garda Síochána’s leading expert on drugs.
Detective Sergeant Brian Roberts said purity levels range dramatically and pointed out that a “staggering” number do not contain the ecstasy chemical, MDMA, at all.
He also said that cocaine is “back to a fair extent” to pre-recession levels, but warned that other white powders, often more toxic, can either be sold instead of it or mixed in with it.
Det Sgt Roberts, attached to the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, was speaking as the busiest period in the summer festival season kicks off, with a host of major music events taking place.
Drug organisations, medics, and police in Britain have been warning users about high-strength pills and powders after Tommy Cowan, 20, and Georgia Jones, 18, died at a music festival in Portsmouth at the end of May.
This prompted a warning by the HSE about “high-dose batches of ecstasy in circulation” and advising users to test a tablet by taking a quarter of it and waiting at least two hours before using any more.
The HSE has launched a similar harm reduction campaign on cocaine after increased usage and treatment data and higher purity levels.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Det Sgt Roberts said there is “no doubt” that the strength of an averag ecstasy tablet has increased in recent years, but added that it could vary dramatically.
“The average strength in Ireland of an ecstasy tablet is 120mg [MDMA], but it can vary from 50mg to as high as 300-400mg dosage, which is an extremely dangerous dose,” said Det Sgt Roberts.
Recently, the organisers of Parklife Festival in Britain put out a warning in relation to blue ‘Punisher’ pills thought to have been linked to the Portsmouth festival deaths.
After testing the substance’s potency, drug awareness project The Loop UK said that the pills had “a strength over 330mg”. These tablets have also been reported in Ireland.
However, Det Sgt Roberts said that a high-strength pill with a certain logo can exist for a certain time, but that the same colour pill, with the same logo, may be low- strength the next week, making it impossible to predict the strength or purity of a given type of tablet.
He said that ‘Yellow Snapchat’ tablets were circulating a lot recently and he saw a lilac ‘Hollow Jumbo’ pill for the first time.
The European drugs agency, the EMCDDA, has warned that the MDMA strength of tablets has “increased substantially” in recent years.
The Wedinos project in Wales, a University Hospital Llondough initiative which tests samples submitted to them, said there has been an increase in dosage and purity of substances, particularly MDMA pills.
The Dutch Drugs Information and Monitoring System 2016 annual report, published last November, said the average dosage of MDMA in ecstasy pills rose from 123mg in 2012 to 156mg in 2016.
Det Sgt Roberts said research by Wedinos also found 49% of tablets tested did not contain MDMA.
“That’s a staggering figure from our close neighbour — that half of the tablets contain some other substance,” he said, adding that tablets could contain PMMA, responsible for 18 deaths in the Republic and six in the North in 2015.
He said that because PMMA takes a lot longer to take effect, people who think they have consumed MDMA but do not feel the effect can assume they are low-strength pills causing them to take another pill or “double drop”, posing a serious risk of overheating, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, and death.
Uncertainty with ecstasy tablets also applies to powder and to cocaine and amphetamine, he said.
“The danger with buying a stimulant white powder, like cocaine or amphetamine, is it turning out to be an NPS [new psychoactive substance] or has an NPS contained in the cocaine and it could be a much more toxic substance,” said Det Sgt Roberts.
He said the danger posed by not knowing what you are taking is graphically demonstrated in the “tragic” death in 2016 of 18-year-old Alex Ryan in Cork, who unwittingly took 25INBOMe, a powerful hallucinogenic.
Concerns over the use of all of these drugs reach a height during the summer festival season, which is now hitting its busiest period.
There are three festivals over this August bank holiday weekend: Indiependence in Cork; Castlepalooza, Co Offaly; and All Together Now in Co Waterford.
Carl Cox plays at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, on August 25, and Electric Picnic is on the following weekend.
Det Sgt Roberts said festival operators are “keenly aware” of their responsibilities to do everything they can to keep people safe and that gardaí now have “good co-operation” with them.
He said gardaí deploy “overt and covert” operations at festivals and that the average Electric Picnic-type festival could have 400 arrests, mostly for drug possession.
The message is basically to make people aware that from a drugs perspective there is no tolerance of drug prevalence at these festivals,” said Det Sgt Roberts.
He said gardaí police drugs principally for “public health concerns” and added: “It’s to diminish that risk in terms of people’s health.”
He said that, on average, almost one person a day dies from drug poisoning.
He said that under the national drugs strategy 2017 to 2025 a working group was tasked, for the first time, with examining amnesty bins and drug testing.
Gardaí are also concerned at a spate of large seizures of ketamine since March, with the biggest haul in years in Dublin when 20kg of the drug was seized, along with 30kg of MDMA.
Ketamine is a powerful hallucinogenic used legally as an anaesthetic. Used illicitly, it is known as a “dissociative drug”, meaning the users can feel detachment from their own body and environment.
After the haul, HSE expert Dr Eamon Keenan said there were reports of ketamine being used at festivals and being increasingly popular among young people.
Det Sgt Roberts said there is “huge concern” at the trade in street pharmaceuticals, such as benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, either diverted from the legitimate trade or counterfeit.
He said criminal gangs have “realised the huge profit” that can be made and gardaí have uncovered tabletting facilities here.
In relation to the super-strong synthetic opiate fentanyl, he said they are “very conscious there is still a threat” from it.
It caused five deaths — three in Dublin and two in Cork — between April and July 2016, followed by a near fatality and a seizure, both in Dublin, in September, but has not resurfaced since.
He said the drug is fatal in “minute” dosages and responsible for thousands of deaths in the US and Europe.
Det Sgt Roberts said many people will continue to take drugs and that he and others “need to be credible” in their messages.
“Drugs are here to stay,” he said. “You need a credible argument that things are not like what they used to be. Look at this in terms of toxicity, the smallest amount is enough to kill you and you are taking that pill and you don’t know what’s in it. You don’t need to make anything up.”