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Health experts call for Ireland’s first-ever project to test illegal drugs at festivals

The HSE report said both the “increased purity and potency” of products was a cause of concern in Ireland, including high-strength MDMA
There is concern about the potency of drugs in the UK

There is concern about the potency of drugs in the UK

Neil Fetherstonhaugh

Health experts have called for Ireland’s first-ever pilot project to test illegal drugs at music festivals.

It comes following reports in Britain regarding the high purity of MDMA (ecstasy) tablets, as well as reports of drug-related deaths at some events.

The report said both the “increased purity and potency” of products was a cause of concern in Ireland, including high-strength MDMA.

It also highlighted an increase in other drugs, such as the drug ketamine, and expressed concern at a 'poly-drug culture' here.

The report of the HSE-led working group recommends a limited pilot project at festivals where tests are conducted on substances dropped into amnesty bins or following seizures by gardai or security with no direct interaction with drug users.

This “back-of-house” approach as it has been called, is different to more extensive ‘front of house’ drug checking systems that are common at festivals and nightclubs abroad.

This is where people directly hand over substances for analysis and receive results and allow for face-to-face health advice.

According to the Irish Examiner, the report mentions a 2019 survey in Irish dance magazine ‘Four Four’ where 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 per cent of respondents had used drugs at a festival - with more than fifth of these people reporting that they had become unwell.

This new report that was 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.

The report said the Department of Justice stated that a ‘front of house’ system would require a change in the law - which “could take some time”.

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.”

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