A "diminution" of communities' roles in tackling the drugs crisis has been "hugely disappointing" and "really doesn't bode well" for effective measures, human rights commissioner Tony Geoghegan has warned.
Mr Geoghegan, a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Irish representative on the Council of Europe Pompidou Group's expert group on drug policies and human rights, was one of several senior figures in the sector who expressed concern at what they saw as the increasing sidelining of community voices from policy.
They were speaking at a webinar on Wednesday hosted by the Citywide drugs crisis campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of the first ministerial report on drugs. The report, published by the first minister with responsibility for drugs, Pat Rabbitte, led to the establishment of local drugs taskforces.
Published in October 1996, the Rabbitte report stressed the need for strong community involvement in solutions to the then heroin crisis. It said: “Strategies which consult with and actively encourage the involvement of local people are most likely to lead to a reduction in the demand for drugs… Local groups and individuals have a very valuable contribution to make to the development of national policy and can bring to the decision table a depth of local experience.”
Anna Quigley, chairwoman of Citywide, said the current view of many in Dublin's north inner city was that "what has been happening is very much going in the wrong direction" and "the voice of community and voluntary sector" was being weakened.
It was felt “the department [of health] is getting involved in a lot of the decision-making that should be at the local taskforce level”, she said.
She welcomed the commitment made by Taoiseach Micheál Martin in a recorded message “to address the social factors driving drug use in disadvantaged communities and the consequences of that drug use”.
“Drug use in disadvantaged communities is a problem that reflects major social challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and social exclusion,” Mr Martin said.
“These challenges require an energetic and co-ordinated response involving the HSE, the gardaí, the local authority, education and training services, drug and alcohol taskforces and community organisations.”
Mr Geoghegan, however, noted the Department of Health had on Tuesday published a mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, without telling the community sector.
“We were unaware it had been finalised and certainly had not signed off on it. This is a hugely disappointing development and is a real diminution of community involvement and really doesn’t bode well for the partnership model.
“Notwithstanding, we are encouraged by the commitment in the programme for government which the Taoiseach reiterated in the Dáil and that was to bring the drugs issue to the Citizens’ Assembly in 2022.”
Dr Brian Melaugh, associate professor in social science at Maynooth University, said it was "essential for the State to accept the legitimacy of community development approach to drug policy".
A retrenchment of policy-making into the central government was part of “a wider neo-liberal policy agenda which is pulling power back to the centre”. This would make policy less effective, he argued. “The only way you can feasibly stay abreast of emerging drug trends is actually to engage and listen to the communities that are experiencing that on the ground.”
The conference was dedicated to the late Fergus McCabe, a veteran activist for Dublin’s inner city who died last year.