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Making Drugs Safe: What would drug testing look like if introduced in Ireland?

In a relatively recent 2014 Eurobarometer poll, psychoactive drug usage among 15 to 24-year-olds in Ireland was shown to be the highest in Europe. The needless deaths of Irish teenagers, like that of 19 year old Jack Downey at this year’s Independence festival, have continued to demonstrate the dangers of illegal drugs. As the dangers of such drugs are gaining more notoriety, different approaches to reducing their harm are being recommended and explored.

If people are not going to stop taking illegal drugs, how can we attempt to reduce their possible harm? Countries such as Australia, Canada and the U.K have already introduced legal drug testing at festivals and night venues. After submitting samples of an individual’s powder, pill or baggie, party-goers can receive informative results regarding the strength, quality and harmfulness of their substances. The key question for consideration with regards introducing such systems in Ireland is; do they reduce the chance of harm being caused to young Irish people? This is an important question as it has been shown that the Gardaí’s confiscation and policing method is not reducing harm.

The traditional form of festival and nightlife drug testing has taken the form of a recognisable help desk where people can anonymously bring their drugs, hand them over, wait some time and then receive their results. However, before we can begin to discuss the legality of this service we must recognise how complicated organising a process like this would be. There are three key considerations which I’d like to explore; reliability, wait times and cost.

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Reliability is the question of quality and quantity testing. Should the people working in these tents be able to tell you the advised size of the dosage you should take or just tell you what substances the sample contains? The reliability of the results can also hinge on the size of the sample which is tested for harmful substances. I’m sure everyone would give away a key sized portion of their 2 or 3 grams but if a totally reliable sample needs a half a gram sample or a full pill just to accurately diagnose its content, would people still be as willing to take this safer option and test their drugs?

Wait time is a similar consideration which studies have shown affects peoples’ attitudes towards drug testing. In a 2017 Australian survey over 80% of Australians questioned agreed they would wait one hour for testing results and 95% would wait 15 minutes for information to be returned. Problems start to arise when comprehensive testing requires longer than this. While an hour wait would be bearable for most of people at a festival while they caught an afternoon act or wandered around the food stalls but would they be willing to wait 3 hours or even 5 for results? If so, how can anyone guarantee that an hour’s worth of drug testing can provide thorough, inclusive results. Or should there be a gradual approach that if the individual wants they can agree to hand their sample over for longer and receive more information on their drugs. These considerations hinge largely on the third and final pressing concern of these procedures, unsurprisingly; cost.

Tents and services like this take money to run. State under-funding towards drug prevention and harm reduction services have been made painfully aware to us recently. You only have to look at the scale of the recent homelessness problems experienced in Dublin and the huge rise of synthetic cannabis and heroin on the streets of Irish cities to get a sense of the scarcity of funding which is providing problems like this. A youth focused drug testing service is never going to receive all of the necessary funding it needs from the government and ultimately this may mean that the rest of the cost, or the majority of it, may fall on the festival goers. Most people would agree to safe, anonymous drug testing if the service was free however, if a €5 fee was introduced in order to provide better testing would you agree to pay it? Keeping a low price is essential for these services to maintain their accessibility, but with fewer funds, testing-technologies may not be able to detect all harmful substances or estimate dosages comprehensively. Paying an extra €5 on your initial €80 to €100 investment does not seem like an unreasonable figure but when that same €5 will be required to test one €10 pill the expense, for many people, will definitely outweigh the assurance of the test.

These organisational measures should be kept in mind when arguing for or against the introduction of this service. The legality and likelihood of being arrested for using such services is outside the scope of this article. However, if undercover Gardaí dress in tuxedos and attend Trinity Ball in large numbers in the hopes of prosecuting lots of young people for personal drug use, you’d imagine that their ideal hotspot at a festival would be just outside a drug testing tent. 

Legality, cost, reliability: these are all pressing concerns if we were to start thinking about utilising a drug testing system in Ireland. No one can deny the popularity of illegal drugs, also no one can also deny the potential harms which unregulated, unknown substances can cause to the human body. One way or another we need to address the dangers that drugs can cause to young people.

 

Euan Lindsay – Features Writer

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