Proposed methadone time limit is worrying


FIANNA FAIL'S latest policy document, "A Radical Approach to Drugs and Crime", is a substantial contribution to tackling the problem compared with the rather shallow effort produced by the party earlier this month.

The earlier document promised more gardai and more prison cells, but offered few new ideas and suggested the party had thought little about the causes of crime and drug abuse.

The document published yesterday shows a significant amount of work has been put into trying to understand the broader issues, and into research.

Some of its proposals are worrying. The threat to cut off methadone addicts from their supply of the heroin substitute after five years is ill advised. The proposed mandatory 10 year sentence for possession of a significant amount of drugs also needs more careful consideration.

But in broad terms the document displays a clear recognition of the failures of the past and a commitment to finding new ways of coping with drugs in the future.

Among the most promising suggestions are a "fast track" procedure for drug trials, so that they will take place within three months of arrest, and an option of sending addicts accused of non violent offences for court supervised treatment.

This would allow small time criminals accused of theft motivated by addiction the chance to tackle the cause of their crimes and avoid prisons in which the drug culture might be well established.

The proposal to link successful rehabilitation to State employment schemes is also useful. How it might work in practice is unclear: it has always been difficult to convince employers to give jobs to recovering addicts, and the proposal may presage the day when the State decides it must provide jobs for them.

Community groups will welcome the proposed national drugs commission, offering them a role in examining whether State policy is working.

The proposed body may seem relatively powerless its only function would be reporting publicly and to Government on the drugs issue. But an official commission which could regularly criticise politicians could use their fear of embarrassment to influence policy.

THE proposed "anti drugs freephone" for members of the public who want to report suspected drug dealing to the gardai, who would then respond with special mobile units, may be considered an unnecessary duplication of the 999 service. But people have long complained - particularly before Operation Dochas came into effect in Dublin - that calls about suspected dealing often led to a single motorcycle garda crawling through their estates long afterwards.

The special telephone line and units could prove a useful mechanism for prioritising drug crime.

Unlike the party's earlier document, which stressed locking up offenders in prisons, the latest one emphasises the importance of treatment for addicts - for example with its commitment to more beds for inpatient detoxification. Indeed, the document has such faith in the value of detoxification and counselling that it seems almost churlish to mention that by some estimates no more than 10 per cent of addicts are drug free a year after completing such programmes.

The single most worrying proposal is the plan to consider depriving addicts of methadone after five years' supply. In practice this could be disastrous.

The document suggests an "independent panel" could decide if a methadone user should no longer get the drug. How? Would it tell an addict, "You're so hopelessly addicted to methadone you can't have it any more"?

THE obvious result would be the addict returning to scoring heroin on the streets, and resorting to crime to fund the habit. The party of "zero tolerance" would thus be increasing rather than reducing crime.

The document notes that the five year rule would "send a clear message that long term methadone maintenance is neither ideal nor desirable". That may be so, but many addicts lack the will power to complete "cold turkey" programmes and methadone is their only option.

Fortunately this proposal is likely to prove so unworkable that it will never become State policy, under Fianna Fail or any other party.

The proposed 10 year mandatory sentence for people carrying drugs worth £10,000 or more is also problematic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many gardai favour the idea, and many judges already hand out stiff sentences to drug couriers.

But the couriers targeted by this policy are those with no previous convictions (the hardest to catch), who have been tempted to undertake the Heathrow or Liverpool run for a few hundred pounds. These people are often young, poor, of limited education and may themselves be addicts. There is no evidence to suggest that when asked to become couriers, the threat of a mandatory 10 year term will weigh more heavily on their minds than their immediate need for cash.

On the contrary, research suggests criminals often assess their chances of being caught, but more rarely know or worry about the possible consequences of conviction.

These concerns aside, however, the Fianna Fail document is a useful one. There are sound ideas in it, which should be pursued by whichever parties come to power.