Decriminalisation and injection facilities must be core of drug policy

Wishy-washy drug awareness campaigns serve nobody. We need courageous action

Drug use and dealing are rampant in Irish society. They are much more sophisticated and hidden from view in more affluent areas of the city. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Drug use and dealing are rampant in Irish society. They are much more sophisticated and hidden from view in more affluent areas of the city. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

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A recent RTÉ Prime Time report on crack cocaine dealing in Ballymun highlighted the impact of widespread drug use among marginalised communities in Dublin and the harmful effects it is having on the children who live there. The four working-class areas named in the programme have long been easy targets when it comes to reporting the issue of illicit drug use in Dublin. This only serves to emphasise existing stereotypical views of drug use and drug users and fails to present the full truth about the issue of drug addiction in Ireland today.

The reality is that drug use and drug dealing are widespread and rampant throughout Irish society; the difference is that it is much more sophisticated and hidden from view in more affluent areas of the city. Instead of white (crack cocaine) and brown (heroin), you will find drugs such as powder cocaine, crystal meth, GHB and ecstasy in more affluent areas where the focus is more on recreational rather than everyday drug use.

As someone who has worked in the field of substance addiction for the last 20 years in community and policy development, education and frontline service provision, I have seen the drug crisis emerging for quite some time. There are many reasons why we have reached the point where drug use is normalised at every echelon of Irish society. The primary reason has been the lack of an effective prevention strategy, fuelled by the 2007 economic collapse when the government’s emphasis on tackling problem drug use was placed firmly on treatment, financially measurable approaches and key performance indicators, which paid little or no attention to how people actually live with addiction.

When it comes to policies on drugs and alcohol, the public ends up with policies they want rather than policies they need

Policies and policy development on drug and alcohol addiction have fallen far short of effective implementation. The National Drugs Strategy (Interim) 2009-2016 never really materialised and this left communities experiencing a raft of issues related to poly – or mixed – drug use.

The current national drug strategy – Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A Health-led Approach to Drug and Alcohol Use in Ireland 2017-2025 – is due for mid-term review this year and has yet to show its teeth in the form of effective activity on the main goals and actions laid down in its plan.

As my Trinity College Dublin professor, Shane Butler, used to say, politicians, ever-mindful of election time will be led by voter opinion on the drug issue. The unfortunate result is that, by and large, when it comes to policies on drugs and alcohol, the public ends up with policies they want rather than policies they actually need.

What we do need is a long-term strategy that deals with illicit drug addiction and the ever-increasing normalisation of drug use in Ireland. The focus must be on prevention and decriminalisation of illicit drug use. The Portuguese model, for example, has shown that decriminalisation can work in reducing the number of people engaging in drug-using activity. The problem is that this model requires a long-term investment which is not popular with the voting public – who favour quick results on the issue – resulting in no political will to support it.

We need a pragmatic understanding of how people live in addiction across the social spectrum and economic divide

With the decriminalisation model, the Portuguese have found that resources can be focused on where they are needed most. The net can be widened to hit supply more effectively at source therefore, eradicating the need for the dealers who are at the bottom of the supply chain. However, this approach takes political courage and a pragmatic understanding of how people live in addiction across the social spectrum and economic divide.

A 2019 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction on Trends and Development highlighted the increasing levels of drug use across Europe. Speaking on the figures pertaining to Ireland, the then minister of state with responsibility for the national drug strategy, Catherine Byrne, said that “the drug problem across Europe and here at home is of great concern and the growing problem of cocaine use is particularly worrying”. In response, the Health Service Executive developed a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers associated with cocaine and cocaine use.

The problem with this report and others like it is that some of the information pertaining to drug use and drug trends in Ireland was sourced as far back as 2010. Wishy-washy awareness campaigns serve nobody, no matter where you live. It is time for courageous long-term policies that invest in the young, promote effective prevention strategies and explore hard-to-swallow possibilities like decriminalisation and safer injecting facilities. The task before us is unforgiving.

Derek Byrne lectures on the addiction studies programme at Maynooth University

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