The HSE is to operate a pilot drug testing service at this year’s Electric Picnic festival in what is a landmark development in Ireland’s drugs policies.
The limited trial will be the first time illegal drugs will be tested outside of authorised State facilities and will form part of an official project to reduce the harm from drug use.
The decision, due to be announced on Thursday, was recommended by an expert group almost a year ago and has been proposed by the HSE since 2019.
The move follows extensive, and intense, discussions with An Garda Siochana, the Departments of Justice, the Department of Health and festival organisers.
Garda authorities have had particular concerns regarding the legal basis allowing testing to take place.
They are also concerned about any interference with “chain of custody” regarding drugs that might be seized by gardaí and tested in case a prosecution is taken.
In addition, gardaí have been concerned at any mixed messages being potentially created in the minds of festival goers and wanted there to be no doubt that it was illegal to possess drugs for personal use.
The HSE has argued that drug testing, or drug checking, is part of a harm reduction strategy that will help it to identify what drugs are being circulated and “in real time” alert people attending a festival about particular substances or high potency drugs.
Health bosses have stressed that it is safer not to use drugs but that if they are used that information and help should be available to those that do, in order to minimise harm.
Electric Picnic, held in Stradbally, Co Laois, runs for three days, starting on Friday 2 September.
It is understood that the scientists conducting the checking have been given a licence from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) to test illegal substances.
The pilot programme will be a limited form of drug testing known as “back of house”. It will only include drugs, mainly tablets, that are voluntarily and anonymously surrendered by people in an “surrender bin”.
This could include situations where a person has been brought to a medical tent suffering an adverse reaction and surrenders other tablets in their possession for examination.
The testing may extend to drugs that are seized or recovered by gardaí at the event.
It will not be a “front of house” testing service where people can get their tablets tested and told of the results and given advice face to face.
The HSE say testing will help inform them about what substances are in circulation and also the strength of the drugs.
The HSE has had to rely on drug-testing services abroad, such as The Loop and Mandrake in the UK, with recent tests there showing certain ecstasy (MDMA) tablets containing almost three times the average dose, and other branded tablets showing a wide variety in strength.
In addition, the HSE are concerned at new synthetic stimulants or cathinones, which are being sold as ecstasy to unsuspecting users.
They are also noticing greater polydrug use and increased “mainstream” use of ketamine, a drug that can have stimulant and/or psychedelic effects.
The surrender bins will be positioned inside the welfare and medical tent, where medical confidentiality applies and no gardaí will be present.
Any drugs placed in the bin cannot be linked to an individual, guaranteeing anonymity to people.
Gardai are also eager that it remains clear to festival goers that possession of drugs for personal use is illegal and subject to prosecution.
It is not yet clear what changes, if any, there will be to how gardaí perform their duties and whether, for example, they will stay clear of the area around the medical tent and the surrender bin.
It is thought that Electric Picnic were concerned as to why their event was chosen for the country’s first-ever drug testing service, but the fact the event is by far the largest is thought to have been a factor.
Electric Picnic is the third festival this summer the HSE has targeted for a new harm reduction campaign, in which an active effort is being made to reach out to potential drug users and reassure them it was safe and advisable to seek help if feeling unwell.
The first event was at Life Life Festival in Westmeath last May, followed by Indiependence in July. No drug testing was carried out at either event.
HSE hope that if the Electric Picnic pilot goes well that they might be able to conduct the same service at other events.
In time they hope to be able to carry out more comprehensive “front of house” testing as done in the UK and other countries.
The HSE developed two proposals to pilot a ‘back of house’ testing project at two festivals back in 2019, but these proposals did not proceed due to legal concerns.
In October 2020, the Government provided funding for a pilot drug testing service under Budget 2021.
In September 2021, the report of a HSE working group recommended 'back of house' testing, but pointed out that the support of the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána would be “required”.
Last March, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (Emcdda) said that a number of European countries include drug checking as a component of their wider harm reduction strategies, but said it was “not without controversy”.
It said: “While checking may provide people who use drugs with some information on the substances they may potentially use, critics fear that consumers may be falsely reassured that tested drugs are safe to use.” It said commenting on the issue was complicated by the different analytical approaches that are used for testing and the technical difficulties in providing rapid, accurate chemical analysis of the substances.
“Nevertheless, drug checking does provide an opportunity for reaching people who do not usually engage with services or see their drug use as problematic,” the EU drugs agency said. “It also furnishes useful information for drug monitoring purposes. Alerts are sometimes issued, for example, when a very high potency ‘brand’ of MDMA pill is detected, although more work needs to be done to understand the behavioural impact of this approach.
“Given the developments in the European drug market and growing interest in these approaches, evaluating the impact of different models of drug checking should be regarded as a priority,” it said.