The Government should set up a pilot project to test illegal drugs at music festivals – in what would be Ireland’s first-ever trial of the harm reduction tool.
But an expert committee making the recommendation said the support of the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána was “required” and said law enforcement barriers “remain an obstacle”.
The report of the HSE-led working group recommends a limited pilot project at festivals – described as ‘back of house’ drug checking – whereby tests are conducted on substances dropped into amnesty bins or following seizures by gardaí or security with no direct interaction with drug users.
These are different from more extensive ‘front of house’ drug checking systems – common at festivals and nightclubs abroad – where people directly hand over substances for analysis and receive results and allow for face-to-face health advice.
The HSE report comes amid recent concerns in Britain at both the high purity of MDMA (ecstasy) tablets and the circulation of other substances, such as euthylone, in pills and powders at festivals, in addition to reports of drug-related deaths at some events.
The HSE report said both the “increased purity and potency” of products was a cause of concern in Ireland, including high-strength MDMA.
It also flagged an increase in other drugs, such as the hallucinogenic drug ketamine, as well as 2-CB and GHB, and expressed concern at a poly-drug culture here involving use of multiple substances.
But it noted that currently there was no information available in Ireland regarding the contents and purity of MDMA.
It said 2019 survey findings in Irish dance magazine ‘Four Four’ identified that nearly three out of four respondents considered themselves to be a “regular drug user”.
It said a subsequent HSE survey at Irish festivals, published in 2021, found that 94% of respondents had used drugs at a festival and that over a fifth had become unwell.
The most common drugs were alcohol, MDMA powder or pills, cocaine, cannabis, and ketamine.
The survey found a high level of willingness among people to engage with drug-checking services.
The report said that the HSE developed two proposals to pilot Ireland’s first ‘back of house’ testing projects at two festivals back in 2019, but said these proposals “were unable to proceed due to legal concerns”.
These related to interference with the ‘chain of custody’ regarding an illegal substance if a criminal prosecution was taken.
“Law enforcement barriers remain an obstacle and this area requires further discussion upon completion of the Working Group,” the report said.
It said that the ‘back of house’ proposal would require less detailed policy amendments and was discussed with the Department of Justice.
It said this approach could ensure an anonymous and secure drop-off point while health care professionals would be also available to offer information and support.
On ‘front of house’ checking, the report said the evidence suggested they can “positively influence behaviour change”.
It said that by combining drug analysis and brief health interventions with users that it can prevent use or minimise harm from use.
The report said the Department of Justice stated that a ‘front of house’ system would require legislative change which “could take some time”.
The group said it acknowledged the legal barriers preventing a 'front of house' system in any pilot at this time, but said there was merit in further discussion.
The report said there were concerns and criticisms of drug testing. It said one was that it would lead to increased use of drugs.
“However, overall there is no evidence drug checking leads to increase in use,” it said.
The second main concern was that drug checking could provide a misplaced “sense of safety”.
In response to that, the report said every form of drug use was “potentially hazardous” and that there was no way to eradicate the risks.
It said drug checking services operate to “communicate and mitigate risk rather than to guarantee the safety of drugs”, particularly when combined with health interventions.
It said there were 31 drug checking services active in 20 countries and that the EU Drugs Strategy supported their introduction.
The report concluded: “The Working Group concludes that drug checking is a beneficial prevention and harm reduction measure that should be considered as an extension of current health structures. A pilot project is recommended in a festival setting initially through a ‘back of house’ approach.”
It added: “Should the pilot evaluation of a ‘back of house’ system prove positive, a comprehensive ‘front of house’ approach should be considered.” It called on the Government to fund drug analysis in the country and for a dedicated laboratory for drug market monitoring.
The report also said that festival and dance event licences should include a “requirement” to provide drug information and harm reduction strategies.
The report, submitted to drugs strategy minister Frank Feighan, was written by Dr Eamon Keenan and Nicki Killeen of the HSE National Social Inclusion Office and the Emerging Drug Trends and Drug Checking Working Group.