Drug testing and warning system introduced in Ireland ahead of summer music festivals

Photo credit: Samuel Regan-Asante

Ireland’s health agency gave details of a drug testing and warning initiative at music festivals across the country.

Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) announced the launch of its scheme Drug Harm Reduction Campaign caters to music festival goers across the country. This initiative builds on the work of the pilot project launched last summer and sees the HSE working with a small number of festivals this year to introduce harm reduction programs in ‘safer nightlife’.

The campaign has several components, including a drug surveillance program that allows festival-goers to anonymously donate drugs to experts via voluntary ‘drop-off bins’, real-time social media alerts, media awareness and a social media campaign.

“I am delighted that the HSE Safer Nightlife program is making progress and entering its second year. It is an excellent example of how to reduce the harms of drug use through multi-agency collaboration and working closely with people who may be thinking about using drugs,” said Hildegarde Naughton, Secretary of State for Public Health, Wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy.

“The program was incredibly successful in 2022 and allowed us to raise awareness of particularly dangerous substances found in the festival environment, while also raising awareness of people using drugs as part of the nightlife.”

“The program for the government includes a commitment to increase drug surveillance at festivals and harm reduction measures, such as the Safer Nightlife programme, can save lives,” Naughton continues. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in HSE to take this invaluable initiative even further in the months and years to come.”

“This approach will enhance our drug surveillance capabilities and help adapt our harm reduction services in Ireland,” adds Professor Eamon Keenan, National Clinical Lead for Addiction Services at the HSE. “We can access drugs in a safe and unbiased manner to gain quick insight into what drugs may be circulating and send real-time drug alerts to festival-goers about substances of concern via our social media channels.”

“As phase one at Electric Picnic demonstrated last summer, this approach has the potential to identify trends that are otherwise unknown,” says Keenan. “The HSE identified worrying trends including highly potent drugs, 12 new psychoactive substances and four drugs that had never been previously identified in Ireland.”

“Apart from the emergence of highly potent drugs, as seen in the UK recently, we are currently concerned about the possibility of new psychoactive substances being mis-sold as MDMA pills or crystal, cocaine and cannabis,” he continues. “New drugs continue to enter the market and we need to be aware of the risks involved, particularly the risks of overdose and mental health issues.”

“While the HSE recognizes that it is safer not to use drugs at all and that there is always a risk, the campaign was developed in response to a changing drug landscape in Ireland and aims to provide practical information to people who use drugs offer harm reduction advice on how to do it. “They can reduce harm to health if they choose to consume,” he concludes.

While law enforcement would prefer festivals to be free of illegal drugs, some need to see the merit of a pragmatic approach focused on harm reduction in nightspots, where drug use is often high. The HSE and those running such initiatives must work with the police to ensure that festival-goers who provide drugs for testing do not face legal repercussions.

The HSE initiative offers practical advice for people who use drugs at festivals. For example, tell your friends if you decide to use drugs, “start low and go slow,” avoid mixing drugs — including alcohol and prescription drugs — and be honest with doctors about what you’ve been taking if you feel physically or mentally unwell.