Plans for heroin injection centres a step in right direction
Published 06/11/2015 | 02:30
Walk down any alleyway in central Dublin and you'll see the evidence: discarded needles and tinfoil. During the summer there was a public outcry when a passenger shot up on a Dublin Bus, and a study of Dublin ambulance services showed that, in 2012, there were at least 469 drug overdoses - 13 of these were fatal.
But by this time next year, addicts might finally be allowed to take drugs in safe, medically supervised injection centres.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister for the National Drugs Strategy, hasn't been afraid to tackle tough issues. He outlined plans at the London School of Economics this week for supervised injection rooms for intravenous drug users, as well as plans to decriminalise possession of small amounts of drugs, including heroin, for personal use.
There are now 21,000 heroin addicts in Ireland, with 16,000 of these living in the greater Dublin area.
We know that there is a strong interaction between heroin use and homelessness, since some people become homeless because of drug use and some homeless people use the drug to escape their misery.
Yet we have only 27 detox beds available, so what's the point in arresting homeless drug users unless they can be treated?
The 2009 'Research Outcome Study in Ireland Evaluating Drug Treatment Effectiveness' (ROSIE) followed 400 heroin addicts in methadone treatment, undergoing detoxification or in abstinence programmes at one-year and three-year intervals.
The research, carried out by Maynooth University, found that 29pc of participants were finally free of all illegal drugs, compared with 9pc at intake.
The percentage selling drugs fell from 30pc to 13pc. Theft from a person fell from 11pc to just 2pc and handling stolen goods dropped from 25pc to 10pc. Some 29pc were employed (that was up from 16pc) and 47pc had their own flat (up from 25pc).
So not only does drug treatment help people to overcome addiction, it also reduces the crime rate and helps the marginalised re-enter society in a meaningful way.
In the early 1990s, Zurich had the worst drug problem in Europe. Authorities decided on a fairly radical approach: drug dealing would be confined to one area, a park at the point where the city's two rivers meet, Platzspitz.
The result was a disaster: the park became a magnet for drug users from all over Europe. Users were arrested, and at one stage 60pc of the people in the jails were there for drug offences. Switzerland was spending more per person on law and order than even America.
A drastic change in policy was required. Heroin was legalised. Treatment centres provided injection rooms. Patients could choose their own doctor and treatment was free.
There was also a big methadone project and it was all very successful. Ten years later the death rate from overdoses had halved, and there was an 80pc fall in HIV infection rates.
Former users were rehabilitated and after treatment, two-thirds found jobs and no longer resorted to crime.
Offences fell by a quarter.
The Zurich experiment has had its imitators all around the world. Frankfurt is among 40 cities in Europe - and Australia - where safe injection sites have been embraced by police and health officials as an essential tool of urban drug policy.
Berlin has set up mobile safe injection sites in vans that travel to areas where addicts congregate. Sometimes they are accompanied by a second van with medical and dental facilities.
We should look to Portugal too. Drug users were effectively decriminalised in 2000, when the government made drug possession an administrative charge rather than a criminal one.
Once drug use was viewed as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal one, new needle-exchange facilities, expanded drug-treatment programmes and aftercare were made available.
The number of HIV diagnoses and drug-related deaths have all decreased ever since.
Drug dealing and drug taking in Dublin city centre is so open, so part of the fabric of the city that eventually we use the same subconscious blinkers that we use to sidestep homeless people curled up in a sleeping bag.
Mr Ó Ríordáin's proposals go one step further in recognising that if people are going to use narcotics, it is best they do so safely.
Relaxing the legislation on drug use, coupled with access to injection rooms, really is our only way forward.