Earth Garden festival-goers to get harm-reduction tips on drugs

Know your drugs: booths and workshops during Earth Garden festival to inform festival-goers on how to minimise risks when taking drugs.

Booths and workshops during Earth Garden festival will provide educative material on drug consumption
Booths and workshops during Earth Garden festival will provide educative material on drug consumption

Harm-reduction booths providing factual information and safety tips on drug use have been a common occurrence in music festivals worldwide since the early 1990s.

Malta is no longer an exception. A ‘harm reduction’ booth and a number of workshops will be providing visitors to the Earth Garden festival with evidence-based information on how to reduce risks if they choose to consume a mind-altering substance.

“The aim of the information booth and workshops is not to promote drug use, but rather to encourage an educated approach to this widespread social phenomenon,” Karen Mamo ,who is organising this event, told MaltaToday.

Mamo, who is currently following a Master of Science course at the University of Malta focusing on addiction studies, has also established the first Maltese social media page about harm reduction (Harm Reduction Malta).

Harm Reduction Malta discussed this initiative with the Authority for the Responsible Use of Cannabis (ARUC), set up after legislative changes in 2021 which will also see the licensing of not-for profit cannabis oprganisations.

“Harm Reduction Malta and ARUC share the same public health vision and are in agreement that Harm Reduction is not about promoting the use of substances, but is rather a dignified and non-coercive approach to mitigate health, legal and social risks associated with drug use,” Mamo told MaltaToday.

The educational booth and additional workshops are being backed by professionals in the field of public health, toxicology, and drug policy, including Dr Giulia Federica Zampini, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich, and Dr Fabian Pitter Steinmetz, a German toxicologist and drug policy reform activist. Both experts will be delivering workshops related to the topic.

What is harm reduction?

Harm reduction is based on the idea that humans have been using drugs for recreational, spiritual and medicinal reasons for centuries and the best way to minimise risks resulting from drug use is to provide evidence-based information.

“If people decide to take drugs, we should support them to do it in a safe, sustainable and satisfactory way,” Ivan Ezquerra-Romano, a neuroscientist and director of Drugs and Me, a harm reduction organisation, told MaltaToday.

Moreover, health strategies should aim to provide the tools for safer drug consumption. “These strategies should not judge or prohibit drug use based on the purpose of use, or a particular substance,” Ezquerra-Romano said.

Mamo points out that harm reduction is already applied to other substances, such as unit measures for alcohol, and behaviours, such as seatbelts for drivers.

Malta adopted a harm-reduction approach for heroin since the early 1990s through the provision of safe injecting equipment. “Yet, when it comes to other drugs, such as cannabis, principles of harm reduction seem to be in constant struggle with the prohibitionist approach of promoting abstinence,” Mamo said.

Harm reduction also entails a non-judgmental and non-coercive approach to address drug use in society. “People who use drugs are not chronic patients or crooked criminals in need of getting back in line unless they want to face prison time”, Mamo added.

Instead like all other citizens, drug users should retain “full agency” and access to their fundamental human rights and freedoms.

The biggest misconception which harm reduction advocates address, is that all drug use is problematic.  Policies are often based on the wrong assumption that people either don't take any drugs (excluding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and medicinal drugs) or have a problematic or dependent relationship with them.

But research shows that most people take drugs, both legal and illegal ones, in non-problematic ways throughout life.

“Unfortunately, stigma and legal status hinder access to harm reduction tools, including education. Current laws aren’t only morally flawed; they are harmful to society and individuals,” Ezquerra-Romano said.

What happens in a ‘harm reduction booth’?

The Harm Reduction educational booth in Malta will be providing visitors with educational leaflets designed by Drugs and Me. Information leaflets on cannabis use seen by MaltaToday clearly state that the drug is not harmless while recognising that it can make “people relaxed, happy and creative”. It also comes with a warning that “in the wrong context and mindframe”, cannabis can induce “anxiety”.

Visitors are also invited to scan a QR code to access Sojourn, an app to monitor and better understand the effects and consequences of different substances.

In this way users will be able to access evidence-based information without the need to disclose personal information. 

Throughout the festival, experts will be on site to speak with people about safer methods of consumption and invite them to access online information to mitigate risks when consuming psychoactive substances, be it of legal or illicit nature.

“People who use drugs are usually addressed from a preventative perspective, and hence a Just Say No to drugs approach. On the contrary, harm reduction promotes a knowledge agenda, and without judgment provides tools to educate”, Karen Mamo told MaltaToday.

In the UK, Spain and Australia, some Harm Reduction initiatives offer drug checking on site. This is one of the most effective harm reduction tools as it provides users with better indication of the contents and purity of substances, enabling them to make informed decisions. 

Workshops on growing cannabis

One of the workshops will deal with Cannabis quality and transparency. The workshop which will be chaired by toxicologist Dr Fabian Steinmetz comes in the wake of the new law which allows people to cultivate up to four cannabis plants at home. The approval of the law in December opened opportunities for nurturing a growing interest in different cultivation methods and techniques. Testimony to this are the increased number of shops offering specific cannabis related cultivation equipment and the mushrooming of peer led groups on social media showcasing personal grows and harvests.

“Nonetheless, education on cannabis quality, especially for home growers, continues to be lacking” according to Mamo.

The aim of the workshop is to familiarize the audience with issues related to cannabis quality, and will also highlight research by the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies on the functioning of not-for-profit cannabis social clubs.

Another workshop chaired by criminologist Dr Giulia Zampini will present findings and reflections from the People and Dancefloors project in Malta, based on interviews with Maltese people about their experiences with drugs and dance floors.

The two workshops will be held on 4 and 5 June at the Healing fields.

Sponsored by the University of Greenwich, the event is supported by Harm Reduction Malta, People and Dancefloors (UK), Drugs and Me (UK), and the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (Belgium).