Friday 23 February 2018

Monday Interview: 'Do we let them die on the streets?' - minister backs new centre to help addicts

Catherine Byrne tells Eilish O'Regan users will be able to safely inject drugs without fear of arrest in a HSE-funded room

Catherine Byrne, Minister for Communities and National Drugs Strategy, outside Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Catherine Byrne, Minister for Communities and National Drugs Strategy, outside Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

It was once unthinkable that addicts would be allowed to legally shoot up heroin and other banned drugs in an injecting room while shielded from prosecution by gardaí.

But the first such supervised injection centre should be open in Dublin city by October, according to Minister for Communities and National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne.

The Dublin South Central TD is facing months of acrimonious opposition to the first HSE-funded self-injecting room, set up as a pilot, which some critics have described as giving "an amnesty for addicts".

"What option have we got? Let them die on the streets?" she told the Irish Independent.

She says it is a compassionate and practical response to the chilling reality of addicts injecting and overdosing in public.

The room is a safe place where addicts can inject under the careful watch of nurses and doctors.

Under the plans, the centre will allow addicts to bring their own drugs and they will be provided with clean needles where they can inject in a sterile booth.

The addicts, who must be registered as "authorised users", can then move to relax in another room after they get their fix.

The memo which will allow publication of the legislation to make the controversial drug-use rooms legal, will be brought to Cabinet tomorrow.

Gardaí could enter the premises, which would have private security, if needed without a warrant in the event of any violence or drug dealing. But they could not arrest any of the addicts for possession, although they would be openly taking illicit substances, she added.

However, already an unpublished report from gardaí has been leaked claiming they have deep reservations about how to police the area around the centre. The minister said freedom from prosecution only applied within its confines.

She has not seen the report but gardaí are part of a steering group which has been in place in preparation for the legislation.

Disability Minister Finian McGrath is also questioning why another drugs facility is being located in the city centre rather than spread out in different locations.

The minister pointed out it was necessary to establish it on a pilot basis first to learn lessons before expanding to other areas.

Her own constituency has areas which have been ravaged by generations of drug use. She has already visited an injecting room in Copenhagen.

It left her more convinced of how they can reduce deaths from overdose and also cut down on injecting in alleyways with dirty needles strewn around.

"I was very moved by it. The centre was very well run. The drug user comes to the reception and says what drug they are using.

"The majority looked very ill and were there to get their fix. If anyone overdoses the doctors and nurses react straight away with the antidote. Nobody has died there. There are 90 across the world."

The target users are around 300 addicts who shoot up on the streets of the capital, leaving them prone to overdose and infection.

Health staff will look after their needs and treat infections or other medical conditions and also make efforts to refer them for treatment to try to stop the habit, if they want it.

The Dublin drug room is to go out to tender and is likely to be run by one of the voluntary organisations involved with addicts which will have to provide the premises and staff. The other option is to have it run by the HSE.

The Temple Bar Company, representing businesses in Dublin 2, has described the facility as "ill conceived" and criticised the lack of debate around it.

"We will have widespread consultation in advance with local businesses. I have seen myself in the past how a drug treatment clinic was opened in my own community with no consultation and it was wrong," said the minister.

It costs around €1.7m a year to run one of these centres on a seven-day basis. The money will come from €3m allocated to support drugs and social inclusion measures.

The minister said the Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Bill 2017 - which she hopes will be passed by the end of February - allows for more centres to be opened and other cities could see one in place in time.

Current problem areas for open injecting are alleys off Grafton Street, Temple Bar, near Dublin Castle and close to the Department of Health itself, Hawkins House.

"I can understand people's concerns. The centre must be monitored by a strong group of people. Gardaí are key to making it all work."

The injecting centre may grab the headlines but the destructive grip of drug abuse is spreading across the country.

Illegal drug use has risen with cannabis the most commonly used substance. Increasingly people are taking a mixture of drugs, including tranquillisers, and two people a day die from drug poisoning.

Prescription drugs like benzodiazepines are increasingly abused, often mixed with alcohol.

There are currently around 10,000 former heroin addicts stabilised on the substitute methadone.

However, she pointed out about 3,500 of these were on it for more than 10 years.

"Some say it is as addictive as any drug, but there are people stabilised on it and rearing families. But I think efforts need to be made to try to wean more people off it."

There are only about 100 former opiate addicts on the other substitute suboxone, which doctors want extended as it is taken in tablet form.

It will be more widely available this year but it is three to four times more expensive than methadone.

Then there was the sinister threat of synthetic drugs such as N-bomb, which were supplied through the "dark net" and smuggling, she said.

Combating this peril will be a key part of the new national strategy on drugs policy which must always try to be one step ahead.

Irish Independent

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