Drawing the line on drugs
Can the new National Drugs Strategy, announced last Thursday, work within the current financial restraints?
WHO COULD find fault with the aims of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 published last week?
If it fulfills its promises, we will soon be living in a country where every problem drug user gets treatment within one month of assessment. There will be 25 per cent more residential rehabilitation places.
Binge drinking among the young will be reduced. Early school leaver figures will shrink and there will be a 25 per cent increase in the volume of drugs seized by 2016.
Random roadside drug testing of motorists will also be in place as soon as is technically and legally possible.
And there are many more promises. But some of them sound familiar. The last National Drugs Strategy which ran from 2001 to 2008 also promised to offer drug addicts treatment within one month of assessment.
Yet recently, the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee heard that heroin addicts were waiting two years on average to get methadone treatment in the southeast. There was a 10-month waiting period in Cork, which has seen a major upsurge in heroin addiction this year.
The previous drugs strategy promised to “significantly reduce the volume of illicit drugs available in Ireland”, the same phrase used in the latest strategy.
And while there have been drug seizures aplenty, cocaine use has established itself as the drug of choice for partygoers, the practice of using two or more drugs has taken hold and the number of cases reporting heroin as the problem substance increased by almost 30 per cent between 2002 and 2007.
When the 2001 drugs strategy was drawn up, heroin was a Dublin problem. Now cases are presenting for treatment all over the State, but particularly in Cork, the southeast, the northeast and the midlands.
Eoin Ryan was the minister of state with responsibility for the drugs strategy in 2001. In his foreword to that strategy, he optimistically said, “We can turn the tide on one of the greatest threats facing our young people and society today”, with the implementation of the recommendations.
John Curran is now the Minister of State with responsibility for the drugs strategy. He has already warned that the problems are major and resources are scarce. So how many of the 63 recommendations will be implemented?
That’s the main concern voiced by people working in the drug rehabilitation sector.
Tony Geoghegan, director of Merchants Quay Ireland who was a member of the strategy’s steering group, is concerned at the lack of funding for drug treatment projects. “It’s an ambitious strategy and it’s important to have that ambition, but we are being asked to do more with less,” he says. “There has been no increase in funding for drug projects in the last three years.”
Merchants Quay Ireland dealt with about 5,000 clients last year and is the State’s biggest voluntary drugs project. Geoghegan worries about what lies ahead.
The range of drugs being taken has increased. The number of people on cocaine has increased, and many of them don’t see themselves as having a problem, he says. And with more people out of work, he believes addiction problems will increase as people use drugs as a coping mechanism.
He says drugs clinics with up to 200 clients on methadone have only one or two counsellors on staff, and the HSE moratorium on recruitment is not helping things.
He has also been critical of the Government’s decision to seek money from Elton John’s charity to fund a national needle exchange service. The service will receive €750,000 in funding over three years.
“What’s going to happen if the Elton John Foundation pulls out after the three-year period?” he asks, and says it sends out mixed signals about the determination to tackle drug problems in the State.
His concerns are echoed by Community Awareness of Drugs, which provides drugs education programmes to parents and community workers.
“The strategy will not be worth the paper it is written on if insufficient funds are allocated in the budget,” says its co-ordinator Bernie O’Donnell.
While her project finds much to welcome in the plan, she is disappointed at the approach to so-called “headshops”. These shops sell psychoactive substances, often referred to as legal highs, and are seen by many as a gateway to illicit drug use.
“While the Minister says monitoring of these shops will be increased, what does that mean?” she asks. “In a perverted way this could act as a rubber stamp for such establishments.”
She accepts that it’s a difficult issue to address. The UK authorities will run an awareness campaign on the risks of legal highs during freshers’ weeks held in third-level institutions. “There may be a problem with that response, however. One might be unwittingly advertising potentially harmful substances during the process,” she cautions.
Community Awareness of Drugs would also have liked to see a greater emphasis on the role of parents in the strategy. “Why wait until a family experiences difficulties due to drug or alcohol use before working with them?” she asks. “An informed adult is a tremendous asset in any family, community or workplace. In our own submission we said more could be made of delivering drug awareness sessions in the workplace.”
While the inclusion of alcohol in the strategy is welcomed by the Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign, it too questions the lack of additional funding for the strategy. Some €270 million has been allocated to tackling the drugs problem across the various Government departments and agencies this year.
“It is impossible to expect communities to deal with an ever-growing drugs crisis with less resources, and the extension of the drugs strategy to include alcohol demands that more resources, not less, are now needed,” says its co-ordinator, Sinn Féin’s Daithi Dolan.
Fine Gael has described the strategy as “worryingly vague” on money, targets and commitments. Its community, rural and Gaeltacht affairs spokesman, Michael Ring, says the commitment to roadside drug testing was “nothing more than we have been hearing about for the last 10 years”, and the inclusion of alcohol in the strategy is long overdue.
He says gangland criminals continue to import drugs into Ireland with ease as they go through small airports with no permanent Customs officers, ports which share an X- ray scanner and “vastly under-patrolled coastlines”.
Tony Geoghegan fears the current economic climate means the Government is in danger of repeating old mistakes. “We have spent the last decade addressing a crisis that was created by a failure to invest in vital social services in the 1980s,” he says. “It would be a tragedy if the same mistakes were to be made in the current recession.”
** The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 is available on www.pobail.ie
** For information about drug prevention, see www.drugs.ie or www.aboutdrugs.ie
Ireland's addiction problem
- Some 70 per cent of people seeking treatment for drug abuse are taking two or more substances, often including alcohol.
- Almost 9,000 people are receiving methadone treatment for heroin addiction.
- Each person over 15 years old consumes an average of 20 standard drinks of alcohol a week. This is equivalent to 10 pints or three bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per week.
- The number of alcohol-related discharges from hospitals rose from 15,823 in 2001 to 18,017 in 2007.
- One-fifth (10,764) of cases treated for problem drug use between 2005 and 2007 named cocaine as the problem drug. The annual number of cocaine cases seeking treatment rose by 177 per cent during that period.
- Almost 24kg of heroin was seized by the authorities in 2000. By 2007, the corresponding figure was almost 130kg. Cannabis resin seizures went from 208kg in 2000 to 1,167 kg in 2007.
Source: The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 and the Health Research Board