‘You can’t avoid it’: Why Irish officials need to pay attention to this drug report

Words: Craig Connolly

Director of District Magazine Craig Connolly has had a unique vantage point over the last few years. Through managing club nights and running festivals, he has seen the ill effects of an unfettered drug culture. It was this first-hand experience that led to his involvement in the Emerging Drug Trends and Drug Checking Working Group, whose report was issued last week. What makes this report different from all the other ones rotting on the desks in Leinster House, is that it is a multi-organisational effort, with representatives from the public and private sector contributing. This 60-page report signals a change in direction and attitudes towards drug use at the highest level of Cabinet and is a step towards an Ireland that ignores less and prevents more.

While working with Four Four, a magazine that covers electronic music news and Irish club culture, a contact of mine in the HSE would alert me to bad batches of drugs that were circulating in Europe. We had the platform to be able to present this information straight to our audience, no bullshit and no sermons. We would just say “look lads there are red sonics going around and they are killing people please don’t take them.” These kinds of messages that were hitting the right audience were potentially saving lives. We started doing some work with the HSE, working as a bit of a soapbox for them, helping them to get information out that they themselves didn’t have the means to reach the right audience with. The aim was to reduce the harm caused by drugs, by acknowledging that people were taking them and providing these people with preventative information.

It was incredibly frustrating when I was involved with running festivals, I would hear about bad batches going around abroad. But if you asked the Gardai or the authorities if you could advertise about a bad batch of drugs in circulation, they would nearly threaten to revoke your license for the event. You’d hear about a dodgy batch going around the UK or mainland Europe and hope against hope that it wouldn’t make it over here. The inability to share information freely on something this serious could have potentially been catastrophic. 

One of the key aims of the report was to create legislative change, by understanding the attitudes of people who take drugs in Ireland. As part of the Working Group brought together for the report, there were representatives from the Gardai, HSE, CMO, doctors, clinical trialists, but we were the only ones that were able to go in and speak frankly as people that were “on the ground”. We had seen it first hand and we understood the limitations of many of their positions. It was serendipitous that we had done an Attitudes Towards Drugs survey through Four Four, which over 1100 people took part in, it became the biggest independent study of recreational drug users in Ireland. We were able to present that to the working group and give them a better understanding of the Irish attitude. Attitudes differ from country to country depending on what the government is like, how restrictive they can be to drug use. We were able to say “this is what’s happening in Ireland now” and that’s how it all came to be. 

No one is doing their jobs properly if people are dying

Craig Connolly

This report will be part of a longer roadmap that will take us into 2025. By then they would like to have testing at festivals and large club nights and amnesty bins. To be able to have that self-policing element where people are armed with the information and can be aware of their choices is so important, be that when dealing with a dealer or when their friend offers them something that they’ve learned is unsafe. These might seem like incredibly small changes but on the base of it, when you are at a festival or a very large gig people’s safety is paramount. 

As a country we are slowly getting more progressive and we are starting to acknowledge that more people are dying from overdoses on what you could say are recreational drugs, it’s getting worse and worse. It’s going to get to the stage where it doesn’t matter if you are a 50-year-old parent who is completely opposed to drugs, but when their 18-year-old kid ODs at a festival, then they pay attention and ask the questions about why there wasn’t better information out there surrounding drugs. It’s gotten so close to home for people that you can’t avoid it, I think in Ireland it goes without saying we like to enjoy ourselves, we have a massive electronic music culture and that sort of goes hand in hand with taking and experimenting with drugs. 

Nobody loses by bringing in these changes, what ultimately will happen is that lives will be saved

Craig Connolly

We want to be part of the generation that made a difference by just saying “they exist but there’s no reason for someone to die”. No one is doing their jobs properly if people are dying, no one is saying a Garda hasn’t done their job properly is they don’t catch someone that’s selling whatever, but if you are seeing tens of people die every year by taking stuff when there was potentially life-saving literature out about the dangers of it that hadn’t been presented to the audience that’s going to take it, then that’s just negligence. Over the next five years, we are really going to see Ireland really change and become a more progressive place when it comes to harm reduction and recreational drug use. 

We tend to have these sorts of watershed moments and I think the likes of Give Us The Night lobbying for better licensing hours and laws alongside better treatment of venues is so important. The night time economy in Ireland is so important to us as a country and from a purely cynical point of view, Ireland will live and die by how it’s viewed as a place to go, a place to socialise and a place to live. Aside from my cynicism, it’s also the right thing to do, it’s clear as day to us but for the people that haven’t been in a nightclub or at a festival in 25 years, it’s harder to get them to understand, the fact that they are actually starting to take note and take it on board is quite radical, and I would never normally give the government much credit but in this instance, I think they got it. 

The team that worked on this whole report were incredibly pragmatic and open-minded as to what can and should happen. I’m optimistic about things changing, given everything that’s gone on in Ireland with the Marriage Referendum or repealing the 8th Amendment, we’ve gotten more and more progressive. Nobody loses by bringing in these changes, what ultimately will happen is that lives will be saved. All we need to do is just acknowledge the elephant in the room, that is people take drugs, it could be an 18-year-old going to their first club night or it could be a 45-year-old guy in a pub on Baggot Street, everyone is in and around drugs in that capacity. It is absolutely the Government’s job to make sure that people aren’t dying unnecessarily. If someone dies of a drug overdose it’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t need to be. By acknowledging that there is drug use in Ireland, if you are educated on the pitfalls of it and if you create a community and a culture like in Portugal or the Netherlands, I can only see that as being positive, because you know how to act. There is already a self-policing aspect to drug use particularly at festivals when it can be so dangerous. 

The timing of this report is important, it’s been published before the budget so there is the hope that some of these recommendations will be rolled out in the coming years. To be able to implement pilot events, that will have drug testing and amnesties. It’s a pity that there aren’t that many large venues in Ireland to host these events, but even if it means going into festival season 2022, we have a good nine-month run of getting all our ducks in a row. Hopefully by that stage when we get to festival season, you can have proactive announcements, amnesty bins and a space to test whatever you have. If you have that going into next year and there’s a good mass awareness campaign, that would allay a lot of fears for young people in Ireland and also their loved ones. That would be my hope and that’s why I was incredibly excited to be a part of it because, whatever about anything else that’s going on that’s seen as a criminal activity, a young person experimenting for the first time at a festival and that potentially being fatal is just unforgivable at this stage.

Most young people in Ireland, festivals and large events are things that they live for but they shouldn’t have to risk dying while attending them. Any celebration of life people are going to take or experiment with stuff, that’s just how human nature works and the safer that’s made the better. It’s about making sure that people who are going to do drugs regardless, do it responsibly and in a way that’s as safe as possible. 

Elsewhere on District: Purity and potency of MDMA and cocaine “at an all-time high” HSE report says