High alert: how to stay safe at festivals

Help Not Harm is taking a smart approach to help those who over-indulge or take drugs at Electric Picnic

Music festivals in Ireland are generally a time when people unwind. Usual societal rules are thrown out the window as people go for three days without showering and insist on having Jaffa Cakes and Jaffa Cakes only for every meal. But a major part of music festivals is the sessioning that goes with it (which usually means people drinking to excess and taking drugs), and, for some, that can seriously impact on their personal safety.

DCU’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has been distributing the SeshSafe kits, which include drug-testing kits and information packs, across universities in Ireland all year to promote safe drug use. Along with Help Not Harm, an organisation that advocates for treating drug use as a health issue and not a criminal issue, SSDP wants to see facilities at festivals that make sure that those who do take drugs are doing so in the safest way possible, and that they won’t hesitate to seek help if they need it.

Drug-testing kits are not purity tests. They test pills or powder for the presence of certain extremely toxic substances, such as PMMA/PMA, which can be fatal in very low doses. It has been found in what was being sold as MDMA and has been linked to numerous drug-related deaths in Ireland.

"Anybody who has been or is part of the festival scene can see that recreational drugs are everywhere. There is still a huge stigma around drugs so I believe that festival harm reduction is stunted because festival organisers may feel like they're in a bit of a predicament because they don't want to be seen to condone drug use. But this is a far outdated and dangerous stance to take and it only causes further harm," says SSDP and Help Not Harm's Eleanor Hulm. She says that festivals need to create safe spaces for people who are having a bad reaction to whatever they've taken.


Pill warnings

Help Not Harm was at Electric Picnic last year, where it implemented the first drug welfare service at an Irish festival, providing pill warnings, safe spaces and mental health support for anyone who needed it. Having services like this at festivals could reduce the amount of work for the first aid tents and paramedics, who have to look after what is essentially the population of a temporary town for the weekend.

St John Ambulance is a visible presence at most large events in Ireland, and its director of communications Paul Downes says that paramedics at music festivals mostly treat people who have had too much to drink.

“Overuse of alcohol will always tend to be the primary thing in those settings. There may be some drug-taking along with that but . . . we would probably deal with more cases of overuse or misuse of alcohol than drug-taking,” he says. Downes says that paramedics tend to see only people who have had a bad reaction to a substance. There is also the problem that those who have taken illegal substances may be unwilling to go to a first aid tent.

The Loop is a service that provides official, in-house drug testing at a number of music festivals and nightclubs in the UK, but it’s not a service that’s made it over here. Hulm suggests that if you are going to take drugs, then some research online can help to know which substances to stay away from.

“Check out pill reports online to see if your substance has been reported on, and test your substance with reagents,” says Hulm.

Preventative measures

The combination of alcohol, late nights and not eating properly plays havoc with a person’s health and Hulm says that when it comes to drug-taking, there are some preventative measures that people can take to ensure that they remain safe. “Always start small: half of a pill, for example,” says Hulm. “Do not mix ketamine, ecstasy and alcohol. These are all fairly common party drugs. Alcohol interacts with ketamine in an extremely dangerous way and a lot of overdoses are a result of a cocktail of these three substances. Stay hydrated but don’t drink too much water: about a pint of water an hour if you’re moving and grooving. And look out for others.”

Downes also has some basic rules for staying safe at a festival, including packing decent rainwear and preparing a mini-first aid kit for the weekend.

“Personal, basic care: eating, drinking water, and all of that sort of stuff. It’s also simply down to having appropriate clothing at a three-day festival. If it is wet and rainy, you have the welly boots and you’ve got the heavier clothing, but if the sun is going to be shining, that you have factor 25 or 50 in your bag. Have some headache tablets with you and something if your stomach isn’t feeling well.”