People thinking of taking ecstasy at this weekend's Electric Picnic are misguided if they think snorting supposedly “purer” ecstasy powder is safer than tablets, one of the country's leading experts on drugs has said.
Dr Eamon Keenan, head of HSE addiction services, said the “real problem” was the increased strength of MDMA (ecstasy), in both tablet and powder form.
Speaking ahead of the three-day festival in Co Laois, Dr Keenan also said there is a “big worry” at the extent to which drug users were mixing substances, including ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine (a powerful hallucinogenic) and 2CB (a hallucinogenic stimulant) as well as alcohol.
In an interview in theon Thursday, Detective Superintendent Brian Woods, attached to the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, said they are seeing an increased trend to MDMA powder rather than tablets.
Gardaí and Customs have seized 11kgs of ecstasy powder this year, including one haul of 10kgs last July.
Last year more than 40kgs of powder was seized, including a massive haul of 30kgs in July 2018.
“We are aware of that trend, we have seen a shift from tablet to powder,” said Dr Keenan.
“There seems to be a perception that powder is more pure, or less likely to have adulterants, than tablets, but really the problem is we are seeing that MDMA, not just here but abroad, has increased in potency, in strength. That is the issue.”
He said that powder, like tablets, tested across Europe has found that both have increased in strength.
Figures from the Dutch Information Monitoring System shows that more than 70% of tablets tested in 2018 contained more than 150mg of MDMA, compared to around 40% in 2014.
Some 17% of tablets had over 200mg, compared to just 3% in 2014.
It concluded that “there are really only high-dose XTC tablets on the market”, when compared to the typical active dosage, 80-100mg.
“The strength of tablets is at a ten-year high,” said Dr Keenan, citing the assessment of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “People need to be aware of that.”
He said that was why the HSE was specifically sending out harm reduction messages, including through social media, urged people to “start low and go slow”, such as taking a quarter of a tablet and waiting up to two hours before taking any more.
He said that while is was safer not to consume drugs, their advice was aimed at protecting the “safety of young people”.
He added that certain people can react badly to MDMA, like people can be allergic to penicillin, and that while one person could take half of a tablet and be fine, certain susceptible people could take the other half and have a severe reaction.
Dr Keenan said they are conducting research with Trinity College Public Health Department and had so far gathered more than 500 responses from drug users to an online questionnaire.
He said that, while not fully analysed yet, this was pointing to mixing of drugs, saying that was “a big worry”.
In addition to their own messaging, he urged festival promoters to include harm reduction messages in their material to customers as well as buses transporting people.
He said some festival promoters were not responding positively fearing an impact of their image and reputation, but said they needed to be pragmatic given some people will use drugs at their festivals.
He said a new working group, setting up next month, would examine the possibilities of various forms of drug testing, but cautioned that testing doesn't “solve all our problems”.
He said there are three types of testing facilities: front of house, back of house and stand alone.
In a stand alone site, people would drop samples into a permanent facility, where the drugs would be tested and the person either emailed with the results or brought in, with a health conversation accompanying the results.
In a back office set up, a facility would be located at the likes of a festival and would test drugs that are either dumped into an amnesty bin, seized by police or otherwise gathered. He said that if anything untoward is identified a health message would be sent out.
A front office set up would involve a facility at the festival where people could bring a drug for testing.
In Europe this would be a sample of their drugs, such as one tablet out of seven they have bought. The tablet is tested, the results given, but the drug is not returned (which would involve supplying drugs).
He said this was the more “contentious” of the systems and would require legislation.
He said the back of house option was more “explorable”.
Gardaí will examine any proposals about drug testing that will be made by the new committee, including for legal issues.
Advice from the HSE: drugs.ie/festivals
The Ana Liffey Drug Project is again providing welfare and outreach teams at Electric Picnic with harm reduction advice.