Oh, Electric Picnic, you did great

Isabella Ambrosio breaks down safety at festivals, in relation to Electric Picnic’s drug testing scheme this year.

For some, it felt like the end of the world when Electric Picnic had to cancel their festival in 2020 due to COVID. To those people, it’s an escape from everyday reality, to just sit with friends, a box of cans and listen to the festival in the distance, or to be within the tight, sweaty crowd, bouncing along to the headliner, completely oblivious to the surroundings. It’s important to have those moments, where one isn’t completely submerged in what can feel like a relentless cycle of living the same day over and over again. So, when Electric Picnic announced their 2022 line-up, the internet seemed to go mad. The tickets sold out within 30 minutes.

Festivals are dated back to ancient Greece, with the same idea of musicians from intertwined genres playing in an order, on multiple different stages. There’s always been something sensational about festivals. They evolve with time and are a constant in life - even when one is discontinued, another pops up. Festivals like Reading and Leeds, and Glastonbury, have evolved through the decades, supporting lineups with popular music as the music industry shifted, expanded and changed. 

Similar mentalities are found between modern day and historical festivals - the idea of letting loose, partying, or relaxing, or all of the above. Often, substances are used with the idea of enjoying the festival to the fullest. This year, the HSE announced they would be ‘drug testing’ at Electric Picnic in order to help regulate the kind of substances people were taking in the festival. For example, news surfaced that a specific kind of MDMA, shaped like a purple skull, was found to be double the strength of a single dose of MDMA. How was this helpful? Let’s break it down.

It feels as if drugs are a grey area in terms of legality. Making drugs illegal helps with preventing access to the drugs, but it also prevents regulation and ‘safe’ taking of the substance. For example, if there was no testing at this year’s Electric Picnic, there would be no way of knowing that there was MDMA circulating that was double strength. Someone who was taking ecstasy with the idea that they would only be taking a single dose can cause a lot of harm, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, as well as restlessness and impulsiveness. There’s negative side effects to drugs if they aren’t taken in moderation or they are used incorrectly.

But, the issue with the drug testing at this year’s EP was the fact that someone had to surrender the drugs in order to get tested

But, there are also other factors to consider. There was a ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study (GUI) done in 2020 that showed interesting results (drugsandalcohol.ie). It found that 13% of 20 year-olds had reported that they had tried substances like cocaine, MDMA, etc. If you take 13% of 70,000 people, which EP stated was their capacity, over 9,000 people would possibly be taking drugs at EP, and only one pill was reported as dangerous. Yet, because there’s no regulation of these drugs, there’s likely more than just one pill that’s dangerous. People may be taking drugs that they didn’t know they were taking, possibly ketamine instead of cocaine, which they thought they were taking. It causes adverse effects that are unexpected, and possibly, unprepared for.

But, the issue with the drug testing at this year’s EP was the fact that someone had to surrender the drugs in order to get tested, meaning that they had to give up the drug and not have the ability to take it afterwards. And think about it, if people already went through the trouble of finding it, paying for it, and keeping it, why would they give it up for testing? It’s illogical. If anything, the HSE, which ran the drug testing scheme, should be testing the drugs and giving it back to the consumer if deemed safe, but then the issue becomes that the Garda could argue that the HSE is supplying, and supporting, the use of illicit drugs.

Festivals are dated back to ancient Greece, with the same idea of musicians from intertwined genres playing in an order

The use of drugs in young adults has increased in the last 20 years. Since 2002, the use of any illicit drug in young adults aged 15-24 has grown by 5.8%, cannabis has grown by 3.5% and ecstasy usage has increased by 4.4% (NDAS, National Drug and Alcohol Survey). A study Health Behaviour in School age Children (HBSC) in 2019 even found that nearly 20% of 15-16-year-olds had tried cannabis. These kind of figures allude to even more drug usage at festivals.

From personal experience, the amount of college students that I know that have taken drugs on more than one occasion is quite large. I feel as if these statistics are underreported due to the fact that it is in fact illegal, and people are afraid of getting into trouble. So, in order for safety to go even further for next year’s Electric Picnic, and protect those who are using illicit drugs, EP needs to do several things.

First, they need to allow amnesty for what would be deemed party drugs: MDMA, LSD, cocaine, and cannabis, for example. This would allow for proper testing as people would have the drugs returned back to them if deemed ‘safe’ and they wouldn’t have to surrender them in order to be tested. This would provide a safer space for not only people participating in taking drugs, but the people who are around them. This would allow less adverse or negative effects, as people are aware of exactly what they’re taking, while also promoting a safe place where people can relax and enjoy music.

While it’s important to note that people shouldn’t be doing drugs, based on the fact that it is illegal, it’s also important to recognise the reality. Electric Picnic and the HSE took a step in the right direction, acknowledging the use of illicit substances at festivals and trying to put in measures to make them safer. But, there are still discussions to be had in order to make them safer, and therefore, more enjoyable for those who are at the festival.

Ultimately, Electric Picnic and other festivals are for music, but it’s impossible to deny the role of drugs and alcohol in enjoying music and the societal norm that has been built around music festivals. With increasing amounts of young people using substances over the last twenty years, it’s vital that the law and idea of safety evolves with the time. Electric Picnic and the HSE stuck to their promise of having drug testing at the festival, but it’s important to further the scheme of drug testing and make it even safer. At the end of the day, people should be able to relax and enjoy music with their mates, drink a pint, take part in substances if they care to and be in a safe environment. I think everyone would enjoy EP a little more if the government worked more with the party and festival culture than working against it.