Gardaí adopt twin-track approach to tackle drugs risk at festivals

With Electric Picnic nearing, the Garda’s top drug officer talks to Cormac O’Keeffe about drugs, festivals and testing.

Gardaí adopt twin-track approach to tackle drugs risk at festivals

With Electric Picnic nearing, the Garda’s top drug officer talks to Cormac O’Keeffe about drugs, festivals and testing.

Gardaí are adopting a twin-track approach in a bid to get to grips with the policing and health risks posed by drugs at the booming music festival market.

Leading that task is Detective Superintendent Brian Woods, attached to the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.

While the DOCB has become well known in the public’s mind, and in the courts, for its high-profile fight against organised crime, in particular the Kinahan crime cartel, the bureau also plays a leading role in drug policy and procedures, including everything from intelligence gathering to high-level State committees.

It’s the lead Garda unit in implementing measures under the national drugs strategy. Det Supt Woods was the Garda’s man on the proposed supervised injecting centre and the State committee examining decriminalisation of drugs.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, he sets out the Garda basic starting point on drugs and festivals.

“First of all, these drugs are all bad, from a health point of view. People need to be aware they don’t know what they are taking, not just the quantity you are taking but also that you are taking it in the first place.”

With Electric Picnic taking place this weekend, he said gardaí work very closely with festival organisers and that a policing plan is in place: “We will have covert and overt policing. People will see it in the front line response, but there will also be covert officers in the festival.

“We will target both suppliers and users. Possession of drugs is illegal. We will seize the drugs and a prosecution would follow. But our main emphasis is sale and supply.”

On the back of recent trenchant comments by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on recreational drug use and linking it directly to drug gang violence, he said: “We have to be very careful we are not looking to normalise drug taking and certainly from An Garda Síochána’s perspective what we see is that these illicit drug markets drive organised crime – that’s a fact.”

But parallel to this policing strategy, he said the organisation was behind the Government’s National Drugs Strategy, which is based on a “health-led” approach to drug use.

On health advice at festivals, he said gardaí backed the HSE’s harm reduction messaging, which has become more focused and intense in the last two years.

“The HSE is doing that [harm reduction] and that’s its remit,” he said. “Our role is to look at sale and supply. At the same time, we are realistic, we know people are obviously taking these substances, that’s what the HSE is doing at festivals. It’s a sensible approach.”

Det Supt Woods said that, in line with findings of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (Emcdda), Ireland has seen an increase in the consumption of MDMA (ecstasy) among 15-34-year-olds, and was second behind the Netherlands.

Gardaí are investigating two deaths suspected of being linked to ecstasy, including that of 19-year-old Jack Downey earlier this month, after he attended the Indiependence festival in Mitchelstown, Co Cork.

Separately, the recent death of a girl has been linked to ecstasy as has a non-fatal poisoning of a young man.

Ireland’s National Drug Related Deaths Index shows fluctuating deaths linked to ecstasy, from a high of 19 in 2007, dropping to under five in both 2009 and 2010 and then increasing gradually to 15 in 2014. There were eight in both 2015 and 2016.

While there were 92 such deaths in England and Wales in 2018, on a per capita basis, Ireland had around 1.8 deaths per million people, while England and Wales had 0.57 deaths per million.

The rise in cocaine deaths in Ireland has been more stark. While it dropped from 65 deaths in 2007 to a low of 21 in 2010, it was grown to 45 by 2015 and 41 in 2016.

Det Supt Woods said they have definitely seen an increase in the supply and usage of cocaine.

In an interesting development, he said they were noticing a particular trend away from ecstasy tablets to powder, which is snorted.

“We certainly see an increased trend in the powder form of MDMA and we’re seeing less and less of tablets,” he said.

The detective superintendent said that between the DOCB and Customs they have confiscated 11kgs of MDMA powder, including a massive 10kg haul last July in Dublin. Last year, Customs seized 11kgs of MDMA powder at Dublin Port and the previous July, Customs and Gardaí had a 30kg haul.

The Emcdda has also noticed the trend with powder. While quantities of tablets seized reached a 10 year high in 2017, it said in its last annual report, published in June, that some countries were seizing powder.

It said 1.7 tonnes of it were seized in EU countries in 2017, compared to 0.3 tonnes in 2016.

Det Supt Woods could not say what snorting powder, as opposed to swallowing tablets, might mean in terms of users inadvertently taking more quantity or not.

Like with tablets, we can’t say what the strengths are,” he said. “It’s very difficult to quantify what you are taking in either form, you really just don’t know.

The Emcdda said samples from five drug checking services in 2018 found tablets containing more than 250mg of MDMA. It also said that ecstasy tablets were “unlikely” to contain unexpected active components and that adulterated MDMA powder or tablets represented less than 10% of all samples.

The Dutch Information Monitoring System Annual Report 2018, recently published, said that 17% of MDMA tablets tested in 2018 contained more than 200mg of MDMA, compared to just 3% in 2014. The strongest pill contained 296mg, with 72% of all tablets containing more than 150mgs. The average dose was 171mg.

It said: “From this, it can be concluded that there are really only high-dose XTC tablets on the market, high if compared to the dosage that gives the desired effect (roughly 80-100mg).”

Supt Woods said they are seeing MDMA, including at festivals, being combined with cocaine and benzodiazepines (tranquillisers).

British media reported this week that three people died from suspected drug deaths at festivals in England last weekend, including a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man.

Warnings have been issued by festival organisers and some police forces in Britain at high strength MDMA tablets circulating.

Dr Eamon Keenan, HSE head of addiction services, said they were “particularly concerned” in relation to high potency MDMA and other drugs and the risks posed by combining drugs.

The HSE has drawn up a range of harm reduction messaging, particularly through social media, and has a presence at many festivals, including the dance festival Boxed Off in September. While people are being told it’s safer not to use, those that do are advised to “start low and go slow” and not to mix drugs.

One measure being considered is the provision of drug testing facilities, which have been used in Britain.

The Early Warning and Emerging Trends committee, set up in 2017 under the National Drugs Strategy, is examining drug testing and amnesty bins. While some initial steps were taken on gathering information on drug testing, the committee seemed to become inactive, but is now being resurrected.

Det Supt Woods said gardaí were due to receive a proposal from the HSE through this committee regarding drug testing.

“We have been speaking to the HSE and we are awaiting a proposal from the HSE in regard to what they see as a viable option at festivals.

“Obviously when we talk about the likes of pill testing there’s a lot of legal issues there, but we also have to look at whether this amounts to the promotion or normalisation of drug use.”

- Drugs.ie/festivals

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