Drugs and alcohol: putting health centre-stage

Drugs strategy no longer focused on criminal justice system

 

One in four adults in the Republic have taken an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime. Drug use among young people is on the rise, while there are up to 1.35 million harmful drinkers here. These are the challenging statistics against which the new national drug strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, is set.

The renaming of the latest drug strategy, which covers the period 2017 to 2025, is deliberate. It sends a clear message that a health-led approach to substance abuse has replaced a strategy centred on the criminal justice system. This is welcome.

The provision of dedicated funding to the Heath Service Executive (HSE) to open the State’s first supervised injection facility in Dublin is significant. Supervised drug consumption rooms not only reduce deaths but engage a hard-to-reach group in services that could provide support for drug users’ often complex needs.

Placing the health and social needs of the addict, and those of families and communities, at the core of the strategy facilitates the proposed move to decriminalise the possession of very small amounts of proscribed drugs. A high-level working group will be tasked with putting flesh on this proposal. As the strategy notes, criminal convictions can represent a serious impediment for people seeking to move on from drug misuse and involvement in crime, particularly in access to employment, housing and travel.

Plans to focus on the needs of pregnant and post-natal women and expanding alcohol and drug addiction services for mothers are especially welcome. In addition the strategy commits to reducing the impact of parental substance misuse on babies and young children.

Globally, opiate-induced overdose deaths are on the rise. An important metric against which the new drugs initiative will be assessed will be annual trends in the number of drug-related deaths.

Launching the strategy, the Minister of State for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, stressed the Republic’s high alcohol consumption rates and noted the health, social and economic costs of harmful drinking patterns.

Her emphasis on harmful drinking is timely, and a reminder of the urgent need to progress the Public Health Alcohol Bill, vested interests notwithstanding. Another concern is that some of the 50 action plans in the strategy are vague, overly general and vulnerable to derailment as a result.We must remain focused on two central goals: to reduce the number of people who use drugs; and to improve recovery rates for those who develop problems with drugs. A fully resourced and compassionate health-driven drug strategy pursued vigorously for the next 10 years has a realistic chance of success.

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