The Irish Times view on responding to cocaine use

New drug strategy places greater emphasis on supporting a health-led response to drug and alcohol use

 

Recent figures from the Health Research Board show the number of people being treated for cocaine addiction is 60 per cent higher than it was three years ago. And the proportion of females reporting cocaine as their main problem drug rose from 14 per cent in 2010 to 23 per cent in 2016.

The numbers dying from cocaine use continues to rise. It is especially dangerous when used in conjunction with alcohol, a common phenomenon. When cocaine and alcohol are used together they combine to produce cocaethylene which increases the likelihood of damaging organs such as the liver and heart. Cocaine use increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and convulsions.

As the third most common drug reported among people presenting for treatment in the Republic, cocaine is a key focus of the 2017-2025 drug strategy, “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery”. Part of the strategy includes the promotion of “harm reduction programmes” for individual drugs of misuse. The goals of harm reduction include reducing deaths from overdose, increasing the numbers of drug users who seek treatment, and a reduction in needle stick injuries among first responders and the public.

However the announcement by Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne of details of a cocaine harm reduction programme raised some eyebrows. Specific advice that those taking cocaine should start with a small test dose and that the powder should be ground up finely to avoid snorting lumps, led to criticism that the Health Service Executive and the Minister were encouraging young people’s use of the drug.

Critics voiced concern that such an approach contradicted the enforcement of cocaine as an illegal substance. However there has been an international move away from using scare tactics to discourage drug use; the new drug strategy places a greater emphasis on supporting a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland. It reflects changing attitudes towards people who abuse drugs, and resonates with calls for drug use to be treated primarily as a health issue.

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