Derek Byrne: No need for moral panic over injection houses

Government should honestly sell the idea to the public of safe places to inject

Accounts of discarded needles and other injecting paraphernalia littering the streets have served to raise the tone of moral panic in the run up to the announcement that safe injecting houses will be opened. Pic Paddy Whelan

Accounts of discarded needles and other injecting paraphernalia littering the streets have served to raise the tone of moral panic in the run up to the announcement that safe injecting houses will be opened. Pic Paddy Whelan

 

When the Minister of State in charge of the national drugs strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, announced a plan to open supervised injecting rooms, it was viewed by policy analysts as a radical move in the Government’s approach to drug addiction.

The Minister spoke in November of a need for a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse, of the need for compassion towards drug addicts and how drug addiction should be removed from the criminal justice system.

It was essentially announcing a truce in the war on drugs and a radical forward step for Irish drugs policy.

This message is indeed a groundbreaking, pragmatic approach to an issue that has failed to respond to a variety of policies in the past 40 years, but it is not one the voting public will buy into easily.

Prof Shane Butler of the department of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin once said that by and large, when it comes to drug and alcohol policy, the public end up with policies they want rather than policies they need.

This is because the voting public expects politicians to be tough on drugs, drug users and especially drug dealers. The danger for politicians is that providing places for drug users to inject safely will be viewed as a soft option and a waste of public funds. However, politicians and policymakers have found a way around this dilemma by selling the concept of safe injecting houses, not in terms of how they will benefit the drug user but rather how they will benefit the voting public at large by keeping the “scourge” of drug addiction away from public view.

Discarded needles

It is no coincidence that much has been made in the media in recent months of groups of “junkies” injecting in the laneways and parks of our cities in full view of the public and tourists alike. Accounts of discarded needles and other injecting paraphernalia littering the streets have served to raise the level of moral panic in the run-up to the announcement that safe injecting houses will be opened in Dublin early in 2016 and then afterwards in Cork, Galway and Limerick.

A recent headline expressed “horror” as a three-year-old girl was stabbed with a heroin-filled needle on a public bus.

The media has been used to whip up this sense of moral panic in the past in order to sell an unpopular drugs policy to voters, when in the 1980s the government introduced needle-exchange programmes in Dublin city for people injecting heroin.

The goal was to halt the spread of HIV among the intravenous (IV) drug-using community due to the fear they were going to spread the virus to the mainstream population.

Difficult pill to swallow

The fear of contracting HIV from drug users was enough of an incentive for the voting public not to object to the introduction of needle-exchange programmes, despite earlier arguments that it would merely result in an increase in IV drug use.

Such harm-reduction methods in relation to IV drug use are difficult pills to swallow for those who do not understand the complexities of drug addiction or those who have not been affected by the issue directly.

And so, while I would wholeheartedly agree with the Minister of State when he says a cultural shift is required in how we regard substance abuse and those who are directly affected by the issue, what we need is to sell the concept of safe injecting houses openly and honestly to the voting public.

The basic facts are that safer injecting houses will be of benefit to IV drug users as they will provide sanitised, supervised spaces for drug users to inject their drug of choice and, at the same time, prevent deaths through overdose and reduce the transmission of blood-borne viruses.

We need to use the media to educate voters on the issue of drug abuse rather than using sensationalism and moral panic to win them over.

The end may justify the means to some degree but ignorance on the issue will serve only to isolate and stigmatise the problem of drug abuse in Irish society even further rather than lead to the kind of understanding and compassion that Minister Ó Ríordáin is trying to achieve.

Derek Byrne is station manager of Phoenix FM and lectures in drug and alcohol policy at Maynooth University

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