Pragmatic approach to tackling drug addiction needed

Refusal of permission for safer injecting facility highlights lack of political will

“One of the main benefits of establishing safer injecting facilities is that they can encourage drug users to ultimately engage in long-term treatment programmes.” Photograph: Thinkstock

“One of the main benefits of establishing safer injecting facilities is that they can encourage drug users to ultimately engage in long-term treatment programmes.” Photograph: Thinkstock

 

In November 2015 the Government announced that after a process of tendering, Merchant’s Quay Ireland was to be given the responsibility of piloting the first purpose-built safer injecting facility in Ireland for people who use intravenous drugs. It was originally viewed as a radical step in the right direction by policy analysts when the then-Minister of State with responsibility for the national substance misuse strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, announced a more compassionate approach to drug addiction. However, the pilot project has since been dogged by health and safety issues and objections from local residents, already jaded by decades of destruction in their community as a result of illicit drug activity.

Many who had long espoused the benefits of these facilities for both people who use drugs and for society at large were encouraged by the political movement on the issue, but cautious about progress nonetheless. For my part, having worked in policy development and education on drug and alcohol policy in Ireland for almost 15 years, I was less than impressed with the proposed application of the project.

Drug dealing

For a start, it lacked the basic ingredients which have proven successful in similar centres across Europe where legislation allows for pharmacies in the proximity of safer injecting facilities to dispense heroin to people using the service, thus avoiding problems with local police in the area. This has the added benefit of discouraging drug dealing in and around the facilities, which was one of the main concerns of local residents who objected to the pilot project being located at Merchant’s Quay, an area already blighted by high levels of illicit drug use and dealing on its streets.

What we need, and need urgently, is Government policy which will adopt a more pragmatic approach to address the chronic issue of substance addiction

The recent decision by Dublin City Council to refuse planning permission for the project, four years after it had been given the green light by the Government, highlights one of the main problems affecting the development of effective drug and alcohol policy in Ireland – that the various stakeholders tend to work in silos. Not only does this mean that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing but. as we now see, time and public money can be wasted on projects which fall at the final hurdle due to what in my view results from a lack of genuine political will to effectively address the issue of problematic drug use in Irish society.

For example, one of the main benefits of establishing safer injecting facilities is that they can encourage drug users to ultimately engage in long-term treatment programmes. However, as far as I’m aware, there had been no provision for extra treatment places to accompany the pilot project at Merchant’s Quay. The fact that no legislative change regarding possession of drugs for those using the facility was introduced means that a “turn-a-blind-eye” approach would have to have been adopted by local gardaí, a true recipe for failure and yet another example of an Irish solution to an Irish problem, so often seen in relation to the development of drug and alcohol policy in this country.

What we need, and need urgently, is Government policy which will adopt a more pragmatic approach to address the chronic issue of substance addiction in Ireland and a national strategy which is not only about goal setting but which understands how people actually live with substance addiction.

Decriminalisation

There are examples on our doorstep of how progress is possible such as in Portugal, where decriminalisation of illicit drug use and the implementation of harm-reduction strategies and education programmes have seen a reduction in use of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis as well as facilitating a more efficient use of resources used to tackle substance misuse.

While I understand that the answer is not always to look at what is happening in other jurisdictions and copy and paste those solutions to an Irish context, one has to wonder why the Government hasn’t learned from what works well in those instances. I come back to my belief that there simply isn’t the political will to address substance addiction with any real conviction here in Ireland despite record levels of illicit drug use among all sections of society. We are a country with a collective sense of denial on the issue. Policymakers wake up: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem and future generations will not thank you for it.

Derek Byrne lectures in drug and alcohol policy at Maynooth University and at TUD Grangegorman

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