Personal drug allowance would help injecting centre succeed
Safe, supervised facilities will encourage drug addicts to seek further treatment
The Government is taking a populist approach to the “unhygienic practice of injecting openly in the street, and how discarded drug paraphernalia would no longer be a problem”.
I was glad to hear that the Government had finally confirmed plans to open a medically supervised injecting facility for intravenous drug users in Dublin later this year.
We were told by Ministers that the pilot facility, to be opened at an as-yet undecided location in the city centre, will be staffed by medics trained to deal with overdoses. Drug users will be able to access sterile needles and rooms to inject the drugs they have brought with them.
The facility is expected to reduce fatal overdoses and the transmission of blood-borne viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis C among the drug-using community. All very positive news – and about time the policymakers took a pragmatic decision regarding illicit drug use in Ireland.
My enthusiasm for this new public health strategy was so great that I was even prepared to overlook the justification for the €1.2 million spend on the facility when the Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, said there would be less drug-related litter on our streets, no increase in drug usage, and no increase in drug-related crimes as a result of this new initiative.
However, as I studied the reports on this apparently ground-breaking decision to approve legislation for establishing supervised injecting facilities, I was struck by two very important issues that have not yet been addressed by the Government.
First, evidence from the 90 or so existing injecting facilities across the world shows that they encourage drug users to engage in further treatment options. Second, there was no talk of a law that would allow a maximum amount of illicit drugs, such as heroin, for personal use so that those using the safe injecting facility are not, in fact, breaking the law.
While the Garda says it will support whatever policy and legislation is introduced, the force has concerns about how the initiative will work.
In my view, what needs to happen in conjunction with the safer injecting facility is the introduction of legislation allowing addicts to carry a maximum amount of drugs for personal use in order to decriminalise the service user. There also needs to be a Government commitment to increase the number of treatment facilities along the continuum of care for those who do decide to engage in treatment that could, ultimately, lead to a sustainable drug-free life.
Current Government policy in relation to illicit drug use focuses on treatment and rehabilitation wherever that is achievable. So far there has been no announcement about extra resources to provide treatment and rehabilitation options for drug users accessing the injecting centre. Instead, what we have is a populist focus on the unhygienic practice of injecting openly in the street, and how discarded drug paraphernalia would no longer be a problem.
More gardaí required
In order for safe injecting facilities to ultimately succeed, the Government needs to follow the lead of those countries where the initiative has worked. For example, more gardaí will be required to police the increased numbers of drug users coming into whatever area the first facility is located.
A law that allows a maximum amount of illicit drugs for personal use would also allow drugs to be safely dispensed under medical supervision, instead of the impractical situation now being proposed, whereby people will carry illegal drugs to and from a legal injecting facility.
The current proposal to introduce safe injecting facilities as a harm reduction measure may seem ground-breaking. But if the Government does not complete the process by providing extra treatment resources and introducing legislation for addicts to carry a maximum amount of illicit drugs for personal use, it is doomed to failure.
Derek Byrne is a journalist and lecturer on drug and alcohol policy at Maynooth University.