Could Irish festivalgoers be allowed to test illegal drugs before taking them?

Advocates of testing services say they minimise the risks posed by drugs

Could Irish festivalgoers be allowed to test illegal drugs before taking them?

People enjoy the first day of the 2016 Forbidden Fruit festival in Kilmainham | File photo: RollingNews.ie

An independent music festival in Cambridgeshire made headlines this weekend when it became the first UK event of its kind to facilitate drug-testing for attendees.

The Secret Garden Party allowed festivalgoers to test their illegal drugs as part of a 10-minute package of health and safety guidance.

More than 80 “substances of concern” were checked, with police approval, over the first day and a half of the event.

Organisers said a number of high-strength ecstasy pills were discovered, as well as “multiple samples whose contents had been misrepresented”.

But could such a facility be provided to festivalgoers here in Ireland?

Leo Varadkar, then minister for health, announced earlier this year that the government was examining proposals to introduce drug-testing kits in festival venues and nightclubs.

Under the plan, users of drugs would be legally permitted to have them assessed for lethal substances.

The Department of Health confirmed to Newstalk.com that the measure will be considered as part of the formulation of a new national drugs strategy set to commence in January 2017.

“The development of the new strategy will involve an examination of the approach to drugs policy in other jurisdictions,” a spokesperson said.

“It will also include a review of international evidence on interventions to tackle the drug problem, including harm reduction options such as drug testing kits.”

The final report of the steering committee set up to advise the minister with special responsibility for the strategy, Finian McGrath, is due to be submitted by the end of the year.

Safety

Advocates of such testing insist it minimises the risks posed by drugs, allowing users to avoid the kind of dangerously strong pills that can often be found at festivals.

Dr Garrett McGovern, a Dublin-based GP specialising in addiction treatment, told Newstalk.com that testing kits can promote harm reduction by assessing whether toxic substances have been added to drugs.

Screening ingredients in this way can identify potentially fatal impurities, he said.

“I often treat patients who’ve taken bad cocaine or ecstasy tablets ... In the absence of decriminalisation, we should at least make [drug-taking] as safe as possible.”

Others question the accuracy of testing kits and argue that they normalise drug use.

HSE addiction expect David Lane told the Irish Examiner in January: “My position on those are very clear in that they don’t work.

“From our point of view, people having these kind of testing kits that they buy online or purchase in other ways, these are not effective in testing what might be consumed.”

Fear of arrest

While a change in legislation would be required to allow testing in public venues, one festival director told Newstalk.com that he thought Secret Garden Party’s facility was "a great idea".

“In an ideal world, no one take illegal drugs but unfortunately that isn't the real world,” said Shane Dunne, of Indiependence.

“We have a pretty good record at Indie with regards to drug issues but there's no festival without some level of people taking illegal drugs.

“The tests at least allow people who are going to take them to ensure that what they are taking isn't going to cause them any additional harm.

“I'd like to see it introduced here but there would need to be some level of discussion with the Department of Justice and gardaí in advance.

“People would need to be able to take the kits and use them without the fear of being immediately arrested.

"If that fear exists, they won't use the kits and it'd just a waste of time.”