Thursday 20 July 2017

Little hope of tackling the drugs scourge in very heart of capital

Despite decades of treatment and prevention programmes, problem only getting worse

Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

There are 15 heroin treatment centres within a small area north of the Liffey and three more in the area immediately to the south of the river in central Dublin, attracting thousands of addicts into the city centre each day.

One centre alone, the Drug Treatment Centre in Pearse Street, Dublin 2, is doling out methadone to 1,200 addicts daily, it reported last year. There are no available statistics for how many people are being given methadone -- a synthetic form of heroin -- in the other 17 "treatment" centres in Dublin city centre.

The last figures available from the Health Service Executive (HSE) suggest that it also gave out almost 50,000 needles to addicts in 2007, the vast majority in Dublin city centre. Traders representatives say that while needle exchange is an important way to stop the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis, handing out so many needles without supervision in a city centre is a public health hazard. There are now 34 needle exchanges in the country.

The cost of treating addicts last year amounted to €275m, according to figures supplied by the HSE in response to Dail questions earlier this year. The HSE carries out over a million immunoassay tests a year on addicts for infections like hepatitis and HIV.

There is further spending by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which funds 14 "drugs task force" groups around the country.

Despite more than three decades of initiatives and debate and hundreds of millions spent on treatment, anti-drug campaigns, studies and the establishment of dozens of research groups, the problem is getting steadily worse, according to gardai and people in the voluntary sector.

The last available estimates of the numbers of addicts in Ireland dates from 2007 when a report for the National Substance Misuse Strategy suggested between 18,000 and 23,000.

Between 8,000 and 9,000 are receiving methadone, according to the same report. Between 1,500 and 2,000 of the addicts on methadone treatment have hepatitis, it suggests.

The death rate from poisoning among addicts is very high, mainly from infections caused by dirty needles and is "rising steadily in the past four years". There were 103 addict deaths from poisoning in 2003 and 185 in 2007.

In reply to a question from the Dublin South TD, Fine Gael's Catherine Byrne, in February this year the HSE admitted there are still only 36 beds available for detoxification treatment in the entire country.

Drug offences are also rising steadily. According to garda statistics, there were 5,324 in 2003 and 11,647 offences in 2007. Prosecutions for the possession of heroin in the same period rose from 995 to 3,113. The number of forged-prescription charges in the same period almost doubled to 408.

Gardai also report high rates of intimidation of the families of addicts to pay debts with many resorting to their savings or credit union loans. Suicide among addicts is many times higher than in the rest of the population.

Efforts to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the country are limited.

Customs has only two container radars and a handful of sniffer dogs.

Two-thirds of the prison population is also drug-addicted, according to the report by Drugnet Ireland. It also found that the Drug Courts initiative launched with much publicity in 2001 where there would be special courts to deal with drug offenders with the view of diverting addicts into treatment rather than jail has more or less failed.

Since it was set up, only 374 cases were dealt with and only 29 offenders were reported to have "completed" their treatment programmes.

The latest Government "initiative" is the "National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016" which has a "five-pillar" programme for supply-reduction, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, and research and information all with "operational objectives" and "key-performance indicators".

Gardai say that despite the plethora of so-called initiatives by Government over the past decades the situation is still deteriorating. Gardai in the two main central Dublin districts, Pearse Street and Store Street are being worn out with the daily grind of catching addicts stealing and mugging people.

Street dealers who are rounded up inevitably hide their drugs and cash in their anuses adding to the grimness of the garda work.

A source who had been involved in devising strategy two decades ago said the State response to heroin addiction has failed, and that the lack of "joined-up thinking" on the issue had led to the concentration of the treatment centres in the heart of Dublin city. He said there had been a failure across the civil service and in Government. Commenting on the State's failure to create any effective policies he said: "Everyone's problem is no one's problem."

Sunday Independent

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