Monday 26 August 2019

Death at festival sparks call for drug testing facilities at events

Gardaí making progress in bid to trace source of drugs that led to fatality

Bill Browne

The drug harm reduction advocacy group Help Not Harm has called for the establishment of drug testing facilities at concerts following the death of a teenager who attended  last weekend's Indiependence Festival in Mitchelstown.

What had promised to be another great festival weekend in the town was shrouded in tragedy following the death of 19-year old Clonmel man Jack Downey who was understood to have ingested suspected ecstasy (or MDMA )at the Deer Park festival site on Friday. 

At around 3pm Mr Downey, a first year student at the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), complained of feeling unwell and was taken to on-site medical staff by concerned friends.  After receiving treatment there he was rushed to the Cork University Hospital (CUH) in one of the on-site ambulances. However, his condition worsened and he was admitted to the hospital in a critical condition and placed on a life support machine.  He passed away on Monday, having not regained consciousness, surrounded by his distraught family who had maintained a three-day vigil by his hospital bedside. 

Gardaí investigating Mr Downey's death have confirmed they are following a definite line of enquiry in establishing who supplied him with the drugs.  Officers believe Mr Downey and some friends obtained ecstasy, also known as MDMA, in South Tipperary before travelling to the festival.  Gardai will be waiting a number of weeks for toxicology tests on samples taken by assistant state pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster during a post-mortem on Mr Downey at CUH on Tuesday.

However Gardaí expect the tests will confirm that Mr Downey took MDMA which in turn led to kidney failure which the post-mortem found was the cause of his death. Last Friday festival organisers issued a welfare message on social media saying they had received reports of a "bad batch of something in the campsite.

"Do not consume any substances that you are unsure about, it has the potential to make you very sick. Please be careful and look after each other," it read.  In a subsequent public message on social media organisers urged people "not to consume any illegal substances".  A statement issued on Monday on behalf of the Indiependence Festival said "our immediate thoughts and those of all festival-goers are with family, friends and relatives of Mr Downey at their very said loss". 

The statement said that, "as with all sudden deaths, An Garda Siochana are investigating any pre-existing medical conditions and the circumstances surrounding the matter." 

Following the death of Mr Downey, Help Not Harm, said this was not the first case this summer "of an adverse drug-related event occurring at an Irish music festival which involved substances of unknown strength and quality".  "It is a tragic incident that can happen to anyone's child that could have been preventable with adequate welfare and drug-testing facilities on site to detect actual drug contents before a person consumes it," said Help Not Harm director, Graham de Barra.

The first drug welfare service was introduced in Electric Picnic by Help Not Harm in 2016 with hopes to roll out across the country The group called on the Gardaí and festival organisers to facilitate drug testing facilities at other major Irish events "without criminal repercussions for people accessing them." It said such services have been running in countries across the continent where personal drug possession is not criminalised and administrative fines are the most severe punishments handed out, for more than two decades. 

Mr De Barra pointed out that the incident at Indiependence occurred within hours of the Government announcing it would not be in favour of recommendations to decriminalise drug use.

"A basic drug welfare service is lacking at almost every Irish festival.  "In line with the Government's health-led approach to drugs, possession of drugs should be given an amnesty for people availing of using such a service at festivals and nightclubs," he said. Martin Condon of Help Not Harm said that in the UK many music festivals provide a variety of drug harm reduction services including welfare. "While volunteering in the UK I have seen first hand how a non-judgemental and compassionate approach can help save lives. Police and medics have praised the work done by the welfare crew on site, both saying the service is invaluable. Even in Ireland Gardai have witnessed welfare services at Electric Picnic carried out by Help Not Harm for the first time," he said.