The Drug Test You Can’t Fail

Emmet Feerick asks what effects on-site drug testing could have.  [br]THIS past July, an independent music festival in England set a record. It became the first in the UK to allow its attendees to have illegal drugs tested without risk of arrest. The festival -- the Secret Garden Party -- provided a service whereby individuals could hand in a small sample of any illicit drug to a test centre. They were next told how pure their drug was, and whether or not it was what they thought they had bought. Importantly, the sample was disposed of, but whatever was not handed in was allowed to be kept.This service was approved by local police, and those who availed of it made use of the information they received – 25% disposed of their drugs. Considering the fact that over the last few years, there has been a spate of drug-related deaths of young people in Ireland, is this a lead we should be following?In January, then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar announced that he was examining a proposal which would allow drug users to test their drugs for potentially lethal ingredients in venues such as clubs and festivals. This proposal is being considered as part of a new national drugs strategy which will be implemented in 2017. The plan, which would necessitate a change in the law, means that those who decide to take illegal drugs in public venues will be able to get them tested.Irish teenagers are the biggest users of psychoactive drugs in Europe and we account for 5% of all ecstasy seizures worldwide. Coming from a small country that speaks volumes about our need for safer drug practice. Our culture of drugs is so deep-rooted that it is dangerously naïve to ignore the facts.This legislation would potentially bring an enomourous change in attitude towards drugs in Ireland. One could argue that the introduction of this legislation would amount to a tacit (if not explicit) endorsement by the government of illegal drug use in public venues. A legal philosophy which emphasises harm-reduction rather than prosecution, could lead to drug decriminalisation. For now anyway, the reach of this proposed legislation only extends as far as festivals and nightclubs.The effectiveness of services such as this has been proven by research. A study conducted in Austria showed that 50% of those who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. At the Secret Garden Party, more than 80 different substances were tested over the first eighteen hours of the festival. A number of extremely high-strength ecstasy pills were identified, as well as some samples which had been advertised as something entirely different. To take one example; a bag of what was purportedly ketamine turned out to be a potent antimalarial drug.Despite the proven harm-reduction effects that this change would bring about, in truth, some drugs are illegal for good reason. The introduction of facilities such as this to public venues sends a confusing message – that illegal drug are becoming tolerated. The evidence speaks for itself. MDMA has been shown to be neurotoxic, and recent studies suggest the damage to the brain is even more severe and widespread for primates such as ourselves than for the rodents which were used in earlier experiments. Hallucinogens like LSD and magic mushrooms can cause psychologically destabilising experiences whose effects can persist for months. Cocaine is bad for the circulatory system, highly addictive, and anything but “ethically sourced”. However, the fact of the matter is as long as drugs are available, people are going to take them. The question is whether we as a society are willing to accept this, and whether we are willing to reduce the harm done by them.Of course, the ultimate harm-reduction strategy would be the elimination of all dangerous drugs, or at least of those whose potential for harm is greater than their potential for good. Given that this has so far been impossible, the war on drugs is showing no signs of a ceasefire. It seems that measures such as that proposed in the upcoming new drugs strategy hold the best chance of reducing the number of drug casualties in this country.Education has proven ineffective at stemming drug use – even the most well-informed and deliberate drug users take drugs because they have concluded that the positive effects outweigh the negatives. It therefore seems that if what we care about is reducing the harm done by drugs in this country, proven methods of harm reduction such as that used at the Secret Garden Party in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, are our best chance of doing that.