Irish HSE Launches Festival Drug Checking for Harm Reduction

Hildegarde Naughton, Irish Minister for Public Health, Wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy

This week the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) is launching their drug harm-reduction campaign aimed at people attending Irish music festivals this summer.

Continuing the work of last summer’s successful pilot project, the HSE is partnering with a small number of festivals this year to put in place Safer Nightlife harm reduction programmes onsite. The multi-component campaign will involve outreach at festivals’ ‘back of house’ drug checking through the use of surrender bins, media awareness and a social media campaign.

Minister for Public Health, Wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy Hildegarde Naughton said: “I am delighted to see the HSE Safer Nightlife Programme progress and expand into its second year. It is an excellent example of reducing the harms of drug use through interagency work and engaging closely with people who may be considering using drugs. The programme was incredibly successful in 2022, and allowed us to highlight particularly dangerous substances encountered in festival settings while also creating greater awareness for people who use drugs as part of the night time economy.

“The Programme for Government contains the commitment to increase drug monitoring at festivals, and harm reduction interventions, such as the Safer Nightlife Programme, can save people’s lives. I will continue to work alongside colleagues in the HSE to see this invaluable initiative rolled out even further in the months and years ahead.”

Prof Eamon Keenan, HSE’s National Clinical Lead, Addiction Services, commented: “I am delighted to launch the second phase of our Safer Nightlife campaign that includes an expanded ‘back of house’ drug checking service with an aim to identify drug market trends of concern. This approach will improve our drug monitoring capabilities and help to tailor our harm reduction services in Ireland. Through a ‘back of house’ approach we can access drugs in a safe, non-judgemental manner to quickly gain insight on what drugs may be in circulation and issue real time drug alerts about substances of concern to festival attendees via our social media channels.

“As shown at the first phase conducted at Electric Picnic last summer, this approach has the potential to identify trends otherwise unknown. The HSE found trends of concern including high potency drugs, 12 new psychoactive substances and 4 drugs which had never been identified before in Ireland.

“We are working with An Garda Síochána to guarantee that the and medical tents are health-led settings and safe spaces for people to talk about their use and consider surrendering drugs. The HSE and Gardaí will work closely on operational plans to ensure the ‘back of house’ drug monitoring can be conducted for harm reduction purposes and that the surrender bin areas can be used safely by people attending the event.

“As well as high strength drugs appearing, as seen recently in the UK, we are currently concerned about the possibility of new psychoactive substances being mis-sold as MDMA pills or crystal, cocaine and cannabis. New drugs are continuing to emerge and we must be aware of the risks they pose, in particular the risks of overdose and mental health problems. While the HSE recognises that it is safer not to use drugs at all and there is always risk, the campaign has been developed in response to a changing drug landscape in Ireland and aims to offer people who use drugs practical harm-reduction information on how they can reduce health harms if they choose to use.”

Nicki Killeen, Emerging Drug Trends Project Manager, HSE said: “We currently have a number of concerns regarding the contents of drugs. We want to know if drugs contain harmful adulterants, if new drugs are in circulation or if something poses an extra risk due to its strength. We found 6 similar MDMA skull pills last summer that varied from containing 36mg – 235mg of MDMA which shows that people can never be fully sure of the contents and pills can vary even from the same batch.

“We are also concerned about the emergence of new drugs such as synthetic cathinones in stimulants and synthetic cannabinoids which could be sold as cannabis, vape or edibles. We ask people to follow our information on social media, chat with us at events to discuss how the programme works and how we can support them to reduce the harms. Our harm reduction volunteer teams will offer non-judgmental and confidential support. They will operate between the festival community and medical teams to create a safe space for people who use drugs”

Minister Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, added: “My Department was delighted to partner with the HSE and the Department of Health on the pilot last year in support of a safer Night-Time Economy and our collaboration is continuing this year to improve health and social responses in nightlife settings. I want to see people enjoying everything our night-time economy has to offer but we also want people to be safe. I welcome this second phase of the HSE’s Safer Nightlife campaign and urge people to engage with it.”