Why we need drug testing at festivals

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Around 55,000 people will be attending Electric Picnic this weekend. How many of them will be taking drugs is anyone’s guess.

Regardless of how many security checks there are at the door, there will be drugs – lots of them.

Luckily, organisers have acknowledged this fact and according the the Irish Medical Times, festival goers at Electric Picnic may be able to get their drugs tested for safety on site by 2018.

This is a fantastic idea and can’t be rolled out soon enough. If I were the parent of a teenager, I’d sleep better at night, knowing that there are voluntary drug testing facilities at all major festivals in Ireland and popular clubs across the country.

Just like so many other things, we’re way behind our European neighbours when it comes to living in the real world.

The Government is trying to put health and safety before criminal justice, when in July it proposed decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs, which would be for personal use including heroin, cocaine and cannabis. But more funding needs to go into  forensic on site testing, which is probably the only way you’ll get someone to throw away their stash.

If you think I’m wrong- there were over 1,100 drugs tested at Boomtown Fair festival in Somerset in the UK in early August and volunteers found a smorgasbord of non-high making and potentially dangerous substances including cement powder, crushed up malaria pills, denture tablets and other crap which you don’t want to shove into your body unnecessarily, sold as drugs.

Nothing will make a teenager flush an E down the toilet quicker than finding out it’s ant killer, I would hope.

The Loop, a UK-based forensic drug testing and harm reduction service introduced testing at four major festivals in the UK this year after pilot programmes at festivals in 2016 showed that almost one in five users – 18 per cent – chose to throw away their drugs once they knew what was in them.

Advances in technology mean drug testers can determine the purity of a substance with an accuracy of 90 to 95 per cent, so even if you’re drug contains what it says on the tin, it would be handy – especially for first timers to know how strong it us.

Young people don’t know how to dose properly, which has been a major cause of death in the UK, where according to the Office for National Statistics, deaths caused by ecstasy rose sevenfold, from eight in 2010 to 57 in 2015. The main reason has been, particularly strong mdma or fake mdma called PMA, which has similar effects, but can kill at lower doses.

In Ireland, recreational drug deaths are low compared to alcohol and cigarettes, and just a handful of people die each year, but even if one life could be saved, it’s totally worth it, screw the stigma that is attached to taking drugs.

Melvin Benn, the head of Live Nation subsidiary Festival Republic, which organises EP was quoted in a piece published in the Guardian in May this year, saying that police and local authority support was necessary for the implementation to be a success. “It’s taken a long time and it won’t be at every festival, but where we think there is a need to do it we will be doing it,” he said.

If you’re heading to EP, be aware that there will be non judgemental services available this weekend. Declan Moore, a board member Safe Sesh, which distributes drug testing kits and info packs across universities says the group will send 20 volunteers to EP this weekend. “They won’t be testing drugs, but rather providing welfare to individuals who may be having a bad time on booze or drugs without judgement. We inform kids not to double drop ecstasy, rather to try a quarter first, or advised not to take benzodiazepin while high, as it can be fatal. That kind of thing.”

Graham de Barra director of Help Not Harm, a group which advocates for treating drug use as a health issue and not a criminal issue says people should watch out for a drug called pentylone, which was being sold as MDMA. “It’s much stronger and can make users hallucinate for 36 hours, which they didn’t sign up for. We will have five stations offering advice and welfare services across EP, so keep an eye out for us.”

Of course, there is the argument that this promotes drug use, but It may come as a surprise to many, drugs have been around since before the internet. Pre Chavin priests in Peru took psychedelics in 12000 BC, the Romans cultivated opium, the Viking berserkers took magic mushrooms and Hitler was a fiend. Escapism is part of humanity.

We have yet to find a successful approach to tackling the war on drugs. Being anti drugs like some ignorant conservative, big eyebrowed middle-aged buffoon doesn’t help. Neither does online trolling or self aggrandisement, filling our prisons with small time dealers at the cost of taxpayers money or lining up and shooting people. By the way- drug pushers don’t exist. No one really pushes them. People generally take them willingly.

No doubt drug testing would cause consternation amongst the ill informed, who think recreational drug users, who are otherwise law abiding citizens and heroin addicts are the same thing, but I think they too need to be informed.

The gardai and local authorities will have to work closely with festival organisers and toe a fine line of not condoning the use of illegal drugs, while also recognising that some people will continue to take them and adapt their approach in the interests of public safety.

When it comes to drugs, prohibition or ignoring the issue doesn’t work-  it’s been proven time and time again. Information does.

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