Why drug users should be decriminalised

Opinion: Drug dealing and drug taking on the street has become a frightening public health issue

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 07:34

A couple of days before St Patrick’s Day I took a short cut up though a laneway in Temple Bar. Beyond the network of laneways that leads to the quays the area was thronged with tourists revelling in what has become a spring break for the booze-hungry. Two men lost in conversation were walking down the laneway. One, unsteady on his feet, bashed into me. When he pulled away I saw he was holding a syringe.

The only remarkable thing about this incident is how unremarkable it is. Every day in inner-city Dublin replica montages of The Wire unfold. Dealers swap cash for drugs, queues gather waiting for the latest delivery, impatient addicts dodge into doorways to shoot up, undercover gardaí slouch against walls in tracksuits. It’s an open-air market.

This layer of augmented reality lies over the hustle and bustle of ordinary street life. Drug dealing and drug taking in Dublin city centre is so open, so prevalent, so part of the fabric of the city that eventually we deploy the same subconscious blinkers that we use to sidestep homeless people curled on cardboard or to breeze past chuggers as if they were ghosts. We use the term “junkie” to dehumanise addicts. Once we have dehumanised them we don’t need to deal with their realities. We don’t need to empathise or understand, because they are not of us, they are other. This daily coping mechanism ignores a frightening public health problem.

Recently, the young Dublin theatre company Theatreclub, in association with Depaul Ireland, ran a three-day public conversation event called Addiction at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. The level of research that precedes many of Theatreclub’s projects is something of a method approach. For Addiction the company worked in Depaul hostels for about a year for Addiction, running drama workshops with long-term and younger drinkers. Previously the company met Rachael Keogh – whose plight as a former heroin addict became a huge “story” for Sky News Ireland in 2006 – through researching their award- winning production Heroin .

“Drug addicts don’t vote,” says Theatreclub’s Grace Dyas, “They’re not registered to vote. Their families aren’t registered to vote. In terms of getting more funding at a departmental level it goes by the wayside. In 1996 there was a huge amount of investment after Veronica Guerin was shot and Josie Dwyer was killed in Rialto, and really, f*** all else after then.”

Dyas says Keogh’s insights into drug policies are especially relevant because she has lived those policies. In Portugal, where the company has performed Heroin , drug users were effectively decriminalised in 2000 when the government changed the criminal charge of drug possession to an administrative charge.

The proactive approach was in response to a staggering rate of HIV among injecting drug users, nearly five times the European average, as well as up to 100,000 heroin users in a country of 10 million people. Approaching drug use as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal one brought innovations such as new needle exchange facilities in 2,500 pharmacies; expanding drug-treatment programmes and aftercare; and increasing public awareness. The number of HIV diagnoses, adolescent drug users and drug-related deaths have all decreased.

It’s not cut and dried but it is a success story of sorts. “The details of it are one thing but it’s the shift in consciousness that’s big,” says Dyas about Portugal’s approach.

Now Keogh and Dyas have started a petition to ask the Government to decriminalise drug users. There are an estimated 16,000 drug addicts in Ireland and 27 detox beds. Methadone, ideal only as a short-term intervention, has become a cul de sac. And it’s killing people. In 2011 methadone was implicated in 113 deaths, compared with 60 in 2010. In Dublin the so-called greying of methadone shows addicts are getting older and methadone has become a treatment dispensed well into old age. People aren’t getting clean. Without available detox treatment they’re stuck in limbo, with one opioid replacing another. Even when facilities are available, red tape is hampering their effectiveness. Last August, the Journal reported that Keltoi Rehabilitation Unit in Phoenix Park has a 50 per cent success rate (which is huge) in keeping former addicts drug- free. But due to HSE staffing restrictions just eight of its 20 beds were in operation.

In terms of cuts, the voluntary and community sector in Ireland is being filleted. Due to misplaced conservatism, there is little political collateral to be gained in decriminalising drug users. But the social and human benefits are huge. Like Theatreclub, this petition starts a conversation. It’s time to talk seriously about it. It’s at ow.ly/v89QD

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