We need a U-turn in drug policy, from prison to treatment

Opinion: ‘You can’t see 3,500 crimes not being committed so it is difficult to persuade politicians that treatment is value for money’

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 12:01

Of the thousands of drug users I have worked with, not one has ever been deterred by the threat of prosecution. Criminalising the possession of drugs for one’s own personal use is an expensive, but failed, policy.

Window of opportunity

Treating drug users is also an expensive policy but a much more successful one. Every drug user I have worked with has come to a point in their life when they wanted to give up drugs. There is then a small window of opportunity to help them. However, if treatment is not available, or if they have to go on long waiting lists, then that window may close. They become demoralised, lose the motivation to give up drugs, and the opportunity for moving to a life free of drugs is lost.

Treatment options for drug users are very inadequate. For an estimated 20,000 heroin users, there are only about 35 detox beds in the whole country. Outside Dublin, treatment may be unavailable or patchy. Within Dublin, long waiting lists are common.

Two crimes a day

On average, a person using illegal drugs on a regular basis might commit two crimes a day to pay for their habit. If a person joins a six-month waiting list, they may commit 350 crimes while waiting for treatment. If, after five years, they have remained drug-free, society has been spared some 3,500 crimes. Some will commit many more than two crimes a day: two young people who came to our residential detox centre were spending €1,000 a day on their cocaine habit. Of course, you cannot see 3,500 crimes not being committed so it is difficult to persuade politicians that treatment is value for money.

The majority of people in prison today are there because of their addiction. We need to treat drug misuse, as we do alcohol misuse, as a health and social problem rather than a criminal justice problem, and divert resources to education (for parents) and treatment programmes that engage users, families and communities.

To provide good quality treatment, as soon as a drug user wants it, is very expensive. However, not to provide it is also very expensive. Apart from the pain and loss suffered by the victims of crime, there are huge costs involved in Garda time, health care and prison incarceration. We need a U-turn in drug policy, from prison to treatment.

Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest working with homeless people

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