In Ireland we are years behind when it comes to partying and harm reduction. Peg Leeson talks to Tim Bingham of the Irish Needle Exchange Forum, who buck this trend with an honesty about what is out there and how to play safe.
Tim, ‘harm reduction’ is a term that is not familiar to the majority of people, could you briefly explain it?
A lot of people think that harm reduction is needle exchange or methodone but it is a lot more than that. It is a model that works with people at whichever stage they are at. Literally you are keeping the person safe. So, for example, if you have someone who is on the streets and injecting, then your priority for that person is to basically keep them alive and limiting the dangers of blood-borne viruses. Another form of harm reduction would be going into a club or venue and carrying out some form of pill-testing or giving out information about how to use more safely.
People often misunderstand harm reduction and think it condones drug use. Have you experienced this? Definitely. A lot of people say we are condoning drug use. We are not condoning drug use, we are saying if you have to take something then do it safely. We still bring an education and prevention side into it.
The name ‘Irish Needle Exchange’ immediately brings to mind intravenous drug use, does the INEF deal with other forms of drug use? Yes, the INEF is a national harm reduction forum. For example we have been looking at overdoses and have recently launched a new website, naloxone.ie, about a drug which has saved thousands of lives. We also look at overdoses from the psychoactive substances that are very much on the scene now as well. We are looking at the whole recent influx of various drugs, like 2ci, 2cb, pma and providing information through the forum or the national media about how you can reduce the risks associated with them. Would I be correct in saying that a lot of the messages in the mainstream media can be counter-productive? Definitely the media has an important role to play, some of them have been great, others not so much. It is also the individuals who make statements to the media who have a significant responsibility to ensure that their facts are right. The whole issue with the pmma was that people reporting about it didn’t really have a grasp on what it is.
The INEF had to brief individuals to make sure the correct message was getting out there. At the time the warning was that this brown powder being circulated in the Cork area was dangerous (which it was. It was very, very dangerous) and do not take it. But it should have gone out that it may have been in the pills that were circulating as well. For the INEF it was an opportunity missed in regards to getting accurate information out there about how to keep yourself safe if you are taking synthetics. For example, leave it at least 60 minutes before redosing because pma takes much longer to effect you, up to an hour depending on the individual. So you could have overdosed before you are even showing any symptoms. When people are redosing that is when they are exposing themselves to a significant risk. This is the type of information that needs to get out there a lot more than it does at the moment.
Pill-testing isn’t something that is familiar to Irish the club or festival scene. Do you think it is a useful harm reduction technique? One of the problems with some of the pill-testing is that it won’t bring up every substance in that pill. As well as the pill-testing there should be qualified workers going into clubs and venues who know what they are doing and are equipped with the right information. In Scotland there are a couple of organisations that do this [such as Crew: Mind Altering]. They work with the local law enforcement including the club security. It is important to have people on the ground so that an intervention can happen, first aid can be called or whatever, before things get serious. And from that we also get a lot more information about what is happening in the scene.
A lot of drugs education in Ireland is a zero tolerance message. Is this a useful approach?
I think a lot of the mainstream education in Ireland in regards to drugs is appalling to be honest with you. The biggest problem is if you are going to tell a young person to not do drugs ‘cos drugs are bad then they are just going to engage with a peer group, or go onto the internet to find out that information. A lot of this advice, especially on sites like youtube, is wrong and dangerous. A lot of people wouldn’t really know that, they will watch this video about how to do it but there won’t be anything about how to look after yourself.
These zero tolerance messages alienate young people and stop them engaging with professionals. What we need to do is to get young people who are experimenting with drugs to engage with professionals in a proper way. There are some great projects out there. The Kerry Life Education Unit targets infant schools and is very much age appropriate. It is all about empowerment and looking after your body, and it is very successful. In Ireland we need to be providing age appropriate information. We have to give out an honest message. We have to admit that people do have a good time on drugs but that there also dangers.
The new synthetics have made applying traditional harm reduction techniques much harder. Why is this? Well you don’t know what you are at. I wouldn’t have said this 12 or 24 months ago but we don’t know what is out there now and this is the biggest problem. When the headshops were in full swing we had a potential there to legislate around them but we didn’t. Now the substances that are available are far more dangerous than the ones that were banned in 2010.
Yes, some of the headshops acted really recklessly. They were open seven days a week, they were selling to very young people, to really drunk people, they were offering home delivery. There were no restraints. Some of the headshop owners wanted regulation. If some form of regulation had of happened, it would have been better than what has happened now. The wholesale ban on everything has made it even worse. People are buying stuff without knowing what it is and it has made things much more dangerous.