An imperfect solution for drug addicts

If prevention of unnecessary deaths is the main consideration, then a supervised injection centre becomes the obvious choice

John Smyth, a homeless man with a drug problem speaks about sleeping rough in Dublin and the death of John Corrie the 43-year-old homeless man who died just yards from Leinster House. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Conflicting views are held on whether supervised injection rooms should be provided for heroin and other opiate addicts in Dublin. Those opposed are concerned about facilitating illegal drug use; about the effective use of limited health funding and about policing and other social issues.

Supporters argue the provision of a supervised environment encourages addicts to access other health services while reducing the threat to the local community from discarded needles and syringes. The most convincing point in favour, however, relies on the fact that not a single death has occurred in these, medically-supervised facilities.

Irish statistics on drug abuse, overdoses and resulting fatalities are patchy. But recent figures plot a dramatic increase in the number of heroin-related deaths. From a fatality rate of 64 in 2012, the number of deaths increased to 86 in 2013. At the same time, the number of heroin seizures by the Garda Síochána grew rapidly, rising by almost one-third in 2014.

As heroin usage and the number of related deaths soared, former Labour Party minister Aodhán O Riordán proposed the establishment of a supervised injection centre. He was over-ruled in Cabinet. Now, two years later, the recommendation has come from Fine Gael Minister of State Catherine Byrne and has been cautiously accepted as a pilot project.

If the prevention of unnecessary deaths, rather than the rehabilitation of addicts, is the main consideration, then a supervised injection centre – in spite of its limitations – becomes the obvious choice. Dealing with attendant difficulties, however, in terms of social investment, policing and good community relations offer serious legislative and administrative challenges.

Experience from similar, international centres suggests it is possible to save lives without alienating or injuring the local community. These centres do not represent a success in coping with drugs.

If anything, they are a confession of failure, particularly in relation to the prescription of methadone as an alternative to heroin. More people died from a methadone overdose than from heroin abuse in 2013.

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