Home > Seanad Éireann debate. National drugs strategy.

[Oireachtas] Seanad Éireann debate. National drugs strategy. (25 Sep 2018)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad...


An Cathaoirleach I call Senator Warfield. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, will also take this matter.


Senator Fintan Warfield I thank the Chair for facilitating this conversation about harm reduction, and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend the HSE and the Department of Health for their work in informing drug users about the safe use of drugs. It is proactive, realistic and life saving.


According to a Eurobarometer poll in 2014, the use of psychoactive drugs among 15 to 24 year olds in Ireland is the highest in Europe. This also extends to music festivals, where MDMA, ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine are all common. I also commend the specific HSE guidelines on music festival attendees or festival-goers. It advises that it is always safer not to use ecstasy or MDMA but, if one does, one should test-dose a new batch and begin with a low dose of one quarter of a pill. Obviously, these illicit drugs do not go through any regulatory testing at all.


There are reports that bad batches have caused havoc among Irish festivalgoers and resulted in the deaths or emergency health reactions of festival attendees. Not a summer goes by without news here or in Britain of such incidents. Conversations regarding drug testing at festivals have taken place this summer and Dr. Eamon Keenan of the HSE has called for its introduction. Having passed a policy through the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis, I put out a statement on the matter and the Ana Liffey drug project has also spoken on it. I commend Ana Liffey, the HSE, Help Not Harm and Electric Picnic, all of which engaged in the provision of harm reduction services at music festivals this summer. We cannot ignore the inevitability that drugs will be used by a percentage of people attending festivals. Most importantly, we must recognise that no amount of literature, education or one-to-one advice will ever inform a person about what constitutes a safe dose of an illicit or unknown drug.


In May this year, two festival goers in Portsmouth died after taking pills which contained three times the typical dose of ecstasy. It is always safer not to use unknown or illicit drugs at all and they are illegal. However, we must be conscious, given their prevalence, that putting our heads in the sand or condemning those who partake has failed completely. We are doing very well in advancing the harm reduction conversation but we can do more. While I do not wish to pre-empt the work of the national drugs strategy, which is examining the issue, I ask the Minister of State whether the Department will support initiatives similar to The Loop initiative in Britain? The Loop offers a confidential drug-testing service at festivals in Britain. A festival goer can provide a sample and will be informed what constitutes it. The sample is then destroyed in the context of the criminalisation that exists in Britain. Will the Department consider funding a similar initiative in the absence of decriminalisation? The British Government has brought various stakeholders together, including police, health professionals, festival organisers and NGOs. The appetite exists in Ireland and we can achieve this in the absence of decriminalisation. I would welcome a statement from the Department on the matter.


Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne) I thank Senator Warfield for his interesting and touching contribution on the initiative in respect of drug-taking at festivals. I also thank him for giving me the opportunity to update the House on harm-reduction measures.


Through its strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, the Government is committed to a health-led approach to drug use. While the advice from the Department of Health and the HSE is that people attending festivals should inform themselves about the dangers of taking drugs and, preferably, should not take drugs at all, reducing the harms caused to individuals, families and communities by substance misuse is at the core of the strategy. Harm reduction incorporates a spectrum of strategies from safer use to managed use and abstinence. The HSE has previously undertaken awareness campaigns, including "What's in the Pill", and in July, I launched the HSE's harm reduction campaign in relation to cocaine and crack cocaine. In addition, the HSE has issued harm reduction information to festivalgoers based on UK reports from similar events.


We are all too familiar with the fact that recreational settings such as nightclubs and festivals are associated with use of drugs, including ecstasy, amphetamines and new psychoactive substances. The risks associated with the use of drugs in these settings may be increased if it is in combination with other drugs, particularly alcohol. While the provision of drug-testing kits at nightclubs and festivals, for example, might allow people who use drugs to gain feedback regarding the content and potency of what they are consuming, this approach has been criticised as having the potential to inform people who use drugs that what they are consuming is safe when that is not the case.


I also understand from the evidence review that doubts remain regarding the accuracy and consistency of commonly used testing equipment.


The HSE's addiction services has had preliminary discussions with emergency health providers who attend music events. It has examined emerging approaches that provide targeted preventive messages to recreational drug users. Our strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, looked at evidence related to interventions to tackle the drug problem, including drug testing as a harm reduction measure. It includes a specific action which aims to strengthen early harm reduction responses to current and emerging trends, as well as patterns of drug use. This will be delivered by establishing a working group to examine the evidence on early harm reduction responses such as drug testing. The working group will draw together the relevant stakeholders and examine the available evidence, along with best practice models from other countries to help determine the appropriate response in Ireland. The Department of Health and the HSE aim to establish this working group in 2019.


Senator Fintan Warfield That was a comprehensive response. I did not take the chance to commend the Minister of State on launching the cocaine and crack initiative. There was criticism and pressure about this. I commend her on showing leadership on the issue.


It is welcome that the Department of Health and the HSE will establish a working group to examine such settings as music festivals. I welcome the fact the Minister of State referred to nightclubs as well. I did not refer to them earlier. It is positive the Department is taking nightclubs and festivals together.


Deputy Catherine Byrne I thank Senator Warfield. I know how well he understands these problems. Like many of us who have come from communities where drugs have had a significant impact on families, friends and young people, the new strategy will take on some of these issues. As we continue to draw down on the actions and strategy, particularly with the working group on personal drug use, at the end of the year we may have progress in this area, looking at treating in a more health-led way rather than a criminal way those young people who, unfortunately, may find themselves addicted to drugs. If a young person has made a mistake in life, we need to give him or her the opportunity to recuperate and go back into his or her community.


We have established a great working group and, by the end of December, we will have some recommendations from it. We will then continue the journey in January and onwards in 2019 around looking at what Senator Warfield raised, particularly around drug testing. Last year, I visited a drug testing service in Wales. I was struck by the fact that any measures that can reduce harm and death caused by drug use need to be introduced as soon as possible.

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