Drug testing at music festivals to receive funding under Budget 2021

Funding made available for 'harm-reduction initiatives, including pilot drug monitoring at festivals and the night-time economy'
Drug testing at music festivals to receive funding under Budget 2021

Drug testing is seen by the HSE as an extension of its harm-reduction programme, where scientists examine the contents and strengths of tablets and powders and, if necessary, issue warnings to users.

The Government is to provide funding for a pilot drug testing service under Budget 2021, paving the way for the first-ever trial of the harm-reduction tool in Ireland.

Health chiefs are also considering setting up a system for "wastewater analysis" in cities — where scientists can examine communal wastewater to reveal drug-taking habits of inhabitants.

The HSE has been working on proposals for drug testing at music festivals in recent years, but failed to get Garda clearance over legal concerns in relation to the possession, handling, or disposal of illegal drugs.

Drug testing is seen by the HSE as an extension of its harm-reduction programme, whereby scientists would examine the contents and strengths of tablets and powders — and, if necessary, issue warnings to potential users.

In a statement, the Department of Health said funding had been made available under Budget 2021 for “harm-reduction initiatives, including pilot drug monitoring at festivals and the night-time economy”.

The Irish Examiner has confirmed that “drug monitoring” includes drug testing.

It is not clear if all Garda concerns regarding the legality of testing have been completely overcome, but the provision of funding by the department indicates the Government is supportive of the measure.

However, as it stands, the reality of any festivals taking place next year is in doubt due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As reported in the Irish Examiner last October, the HSE had submitted two proposals for drug testing to gardaí, one in June and the other in September 2019.

The first proposal was to test drugs that had been seized by gardaí from festival-goers, while the second proposal was to examine drugs that had been given up voluntarily and anonymously by festival-goers and placed in so-called amnesty bins. In neither case would substances be returned to users.

While it has its critics, drug testing has been promoted in recent years amid alarm across Europe at the high strength of pills and powders and also at alternative, and much more powerful substances such as PMA/PMMA, being sold as ecstasy.

Gardaí have previously said their concerns relate to the potential “normalisation” of drug use and whether drug testing was legally permitted.

The Irish Examiner understands that other forms of drug monitoring being considered are “wastewater analysis” — which has been done for years in most other EU countries — and syringe analysis from needle-exchange services.

While the total funding for the 'drugs initiative' remains unchanged at €7.487m in Budget 2021, the Department of Health said a number of new developments are being funded next year.

In a separate spend, over €4m is being provided for the continued treatment of 700 problem heroin users who are receiving substitute treatment during the Covid-19 crisis.

The department said new developments in Budget 2021, relating to the remit of Minister Frank Feighan for the national drugs strategy, included:

  • €1m to develop targeted drug and alcohol initiatives through the network of drug and alcohol task forces, and to increase core funding for existing services; 
  • €2m to increase residential treatment services for people with severe drug and alcohol dependency across the country, including a step-up stabilisation facility in community healthcare organisations in Cork/Kerry, Mid-West, and South East, and a low threshold programme in Dublin North East Inner City;
  • €700,000 to expand community and family support services, including initiatives in Donegal/Leitrim/Sligo, Louth/Meath, Cork/Kerry and Dublin North Inner City;
  • €400,000 for harm-reduction initiatives, including pilot drug monitoring at festivals and the night-time economy, expanded access to the drugs and alcohol helpline, and increased provision of naloxone;
  •  A number of related measures are being taken to tackle complex issues involving homeless people, including chronic health and inpatient treatment services.

Separately, €4.2m is being provided in 2021 for the continued treatment of an additional 700 clients on opioid substitution treatment, who were given access to the treatment in 2020 under the Covid-19 contingency plan for people who use drugs.

In addition, some €1.4m is being provided for additional services for people who are homeless with complex health needs, including chronic mental health and inpatient treatment services.

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