Outside of telling us to lift heavy things from the legs instead of our backs because “otherwise you’ll bust your arse”, my dad rarely interjected with life advice when we were growing up. He preferred to leave us to figure it out on our own, unless it was to do with his dual passions of pool pumps or two-stroke engine maintenance.
There is one piece of rare unsolicited advice that he liked to quietly hammer into us over and over again, however. “Alcohol is the most socially acceptable drug.” What he meant was addiction was addiction, whether the substance was legal or not. Don’t pretend a drug dependency is acceptable because you can do it at a work function.
This was a surprising take, given we have had both meth and heroin users in my family at various times. On both sides. And in my friend circle. But maybe that’s also why it shouldn’t have been surprising. Addiction hurts those in it and the loved ones around it, regardless of whether you could pick up your supply at Tesco or not.
There should be no moral superiority assigned to types of addiction. But as a collective we do think that, and we tend to tell ourselves every so often. Former minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, frustrated by a perceived lack of public concern over 60 recent overdoses from a bad batch of heroin, suggested Irish society cares more about livestock than the lives of drug users.
“If 59 cattle were struck down by some mystery illness, it would be all we’d be talking about… there would be maybe an emergency Cabinet meeting,” he said, admitting he wasn’t confident the long-delayed medical injecting facility in Dublin would actually ever open.
“Society collectively hates these people. If they overdose and die, well it’s just ‘what did they expect?’
“We hate the way they talk, we hate the way they look. And the less of them that we have to endure the better.”
The day after I found out that my cousin had started using heroin again and also that he was no longer alive, I was somehow deemed the most appropriate person in the newsroom to go to a press conference on opioid deaths.
“Junkies – should just let ‘em go. Natural selection hey?” said a well-respected journalist to me as we packed up to leave.
Heroin users are “junkies”, but people who abuse alcohol are “just fond of a drink”. We like to think of the former as the ones who are responsible for the crimes, who are using up scarce public health resources and making cities unsafe, even in the face of statistics that tell us otherwise.
Perhaps if we did treat problematic drinking with the same judgment as problematic drug taking, it would bring up uncomfortable realisations about ourselves and our loved ones. In Ireland we have a tendency to avert our eyes away from these kinds of awkward truths with the vigour of a dog refusing to look at the sofa they’ve just torn up while being told off.
We don’t look at drug addiction as a medical condition that deserves help and sympathy. We see it as a simple selfish choice, like littering on the ground when there’s a bin around the corner. That’s how a crippling illness gets treated with the same casual disdain we give a stranger spitting out their gum on the path street in front of us.
The underlying message is these are not people we want around, so why would we put in services that might help them?
It’s impossible to say that a medically supervised injecting centre would prevent all drug-related deaths, or even “enough” deaths for people opposed to the service to accept it. It did not stop my cousin’s premature death in Australia, an event which devastated his siblings but also the health of my grandmother and uncle, who also died too young and had to be buried by his remaining heartbroken children a few short years later. While these people happen to be among the toughest of us all who share the same DNA, what they have had to endure is beyond the definitions of unfair and cruel.
When my cousin died, he was roughly 50km or an hour’s drive from the nearest injecting centre. An hour and half by public transport. In all likelihood the service was probably just too far away for practical use. Despite the original facility hitting one million injections without a fatal overdose in 2017, and research showing an immediate decline in overdose-related ambulance call-outs in the immediate area, calls for another facility in the region where my cousin lived have yielded nothing.
The medically supervised injecting facility approved for Dublin’s Merchant Quay still doesn’t have an opening date, despite getting the planning permission go-ahead in 2019 and re-approval after a legal battle in 2022.
The arguments against the one here in Ireland and the second in western Sydney have the same themes: the area already has too many services for drug users, and it would burden residents with even more drug users in the area. The underlying message is these are not people we want around, so why would we put in services that might help them?
Among the planning permission submissions raising concerns about Merchant’s Quay facility, one in particular mentioned the “overconcentration” of similar services, an expected increase in “antisocial behaviour” and addicts “congregating” in the area.
The irony might have been lost on the Temple Bar pub owner responsible, but it shouldn’t be on the rest of us.