The anonymous testing of drugs surrendered voluntarily by Electric Picnic goers during next month’s festival will “reduce the harm”, the Health Service Executive’s lead for addiction services has said.
Under the pilot HSE programme at the Co Laois festival, testers will examine the chemical make-up of drugs that have been submitted anonymously to designated drop-off receptacles to gain a better understanding of the current drug trends.
If particularly dangerous substances are found to be in circulation at the event, the team will communicate this to attendees through social media and other means.
Prof Eamon Keenan, HSE national clinical lead for addiction services, said the testing takes 20 minutes, allowing the HSE to respond with public health messaging “there and then”.
His team is currently “very concerned”, he said, about the emergence of new psychoactive substances and high-potency substances which pose a threat to health.
“People may not be aware of substances that they are taking. The substances may be a very high potency with more health harms associated with them – particularly mental health harms,” he said.
Prof Keenan said it is “important to note the HSE’s position that it is safer not to take drugs at all”. However, the service operates “in the real world”, he said.
The pilot follows similar trials at festivals in the United Kingdom. He noted a discovery by testers at Winchester’s Boomtown in 2019 of a drug being sold as the hallucinogenic drug MDMA or ecstasy which turned out to be PMMA, which is toxic at lower doses.
“They were able to pump that message out around the festival and people didn’t take that substance. It was real evidence that this approach can work,” he said.
The plan is part of the HSE’s “Safer Nightlife” campaign to reduce the harm caused by drugs by deploying a “health-led approach”.
Prof Keenan said real-time monitoring of drugs at the festival in Stradbally, needle exchange programmes and in wastewater systems will help to inform people and services of the health risks associated with drugs currently in circulation.
Frank Feighan, Minister of State in the Department of Health, said the “innovative” and “liberal” national drugs strategy reflects that drug use is a part of modern society.
“We hope that people don’t use drugs but for those who choose to at least they will know what substance they are using and it will reduce the harm for them,” he said.
Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, which runs Electric Picnic, said he was delighted to be working with the HSE on a programme designed to mitigate some risk “in the knowledge that people take drugs”.
“The law remains that drugs are illegal and that will remain so at Electric Picnic,” he added.