The drug policy vs the heroin scourge: the government’s failure

Barbara Debout

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@ Flickr/Creative commons – photo credit @Benjamin O’Reilly - needle
@ Flickr/Creative commons – photo credit @Benjamin O’Reilly – needle

Eight years of heroin epidemics, ‘junkies’ criminalised and non – effective anti-drug measures. While European countries modernise their drugs policies, Ireland, with one of the highest rate of drug users in the union, haven’t moved an inch.

This idea to investigate the drug problem in Ireland came about a day of cold spells. Readers should imagine an ice cream van – driving through a neighbourhood without children in the street – from 3 to 10 pm, and with a temperature approaching minus zero degrees. At the sight of that truck, the first question which came to mind is: whether the ice – cream man is not selling chocolate and vanilla balls in cups, what is selling then? Unfortunately, the answer may seem obvious.

In the early 1980s, Tony Felloni or the ‘King Scum’, imported large quantities of heroin in Ireland. Quickly, the drug has spread in the poor neighbourhood of Dublin. Unfortunately, the mechanisms in place are nearly the same as 30 years ago. The Irish government gave little thought to this massive scourge. That remains the case today. According to the European Drug Report 2017, Ireland continues to have one of the highest drug mortality rates: 71 fatalities per million people. The comparison is astounding while we read that the European average is 21 deaths.

 In 1977, the Fine Gael government passed a law which made it a crime to consume opium. This law was the first ‘modern’ drug measure took by the government. But, at that time opium wasn’t popular in Ireland. The government made the law to address the growing heroin problem, whereas failing to grasp that heroin was legally and chemically a different substance to opium. This is an example of the non – effective government proper response to this scourge.

Today, the country is under the Misuse of Drugs Acts voted in 1977 and 1984. The possession of any controlled substance without due authorisation is a breach of the law. The legislation makes a distinction between possession for personal use and possession for sale or supply. But, a small amount of heroin for personal use is punishable by up to one year in prison. It is evident that if the country has the fourth highest rate of overdose deaths in the EU and increasing numbers of young people taking illegal drugs that the legislation is outdated.

 Recently, the debate around decriminalisation is emerging little by little. According to Pauline McKeown, Chief Executive of the Coolmine Therapeutic Community, it could be a solution: “I agree with the principles of decriminalisation – particularly for small amounts illicit drug possession and use – brings a health focus rather than our historical criminal focus to drug use. Switches us from a punitive or a punishment approach to a health and social care response – this will decrease problematic substance use and assist in earlier intervention for those in need”.

In September 2017, The Irish Times headlined: Decriminalising drugs: could it work in Ireland? This headline which calls into question the Irish genetic is the first one to compare – on the same worldwide basis – the functioning Portuguese drug policy with the one in Ireland that does not work.

 20 years ago, when Portugal started to talk about decriminalisation, the opponents have predicted a horde of European ‘junkies’ rippling through Portugal. It didn’t happen. Voted in November 2000 and applied since July 2001, the decriminalisation of drugs consumption is a success. The direct consequences are no arrest, no case, no detention. Those points have alleviated the police, justice and prison budget. The amounts released is used for healthcare and therapeutic services. The drugs users don’t need to go to the tribunal after an interpellation but in front of a commission for deterrence of drug abuse.

 

The public health approach is preferred to punishment. The drug user is considered as a patient, not as a delinquent. The drug user can receive many health care services aimed at getting them off the drug. The STD, IVH and overdose rate decreased dramatically. Since the decriminalisation, the loss of life resulting from drugs declined by 80%. In 2001, the number was 80 fatalities per million people – nowadays, the number is 16 – so, under the European average of 21.

 According to Pauline McKeown, “Having charges and offences listed for small drug possession charges is not helpful nor necessary and can deter employers from offering clients in recovery from addiction employment”. The Chief Executive of Coolmine is not the only one to talk about decriminalisation. Campaigners are hoping the country may be about to turn a corner. Last month, the news that government working group is to consider proposals for the decriminalisation was in the media. Nevertheless, concerning the decision to take this measure, the government actions seems slow.

The Sinn Féin national drug strategy addresses different points, but more or less the same as the strategy in place: family support, prevention, harm reduction, treatment, needles exchange and methadone treatment. At the end of the small chapter headlined ‘retargeting the justice system,’ it is writing “A broad societal debate considering every possible approach and all relevant evidence from other jurisdictions including those that have experimented with decriminalisation and/or legalisation is warranted to this end”. The lack of importance given to decriminalisation in this national drug strategy shows that it is not a landmark measure.

Regarding the National Addiction Strategy of Fine Gael, decriminalisation is not an essential measure too, but Catherine Byrne, Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy wrote in it “No decision has been made on decriminalisation, but we need to examine this in great depth in conjunction with the Department of Justice and Equality. If we decriminalise addicts, we need to consider how that will affect other people”. Subsequently, in the context of speaking positively about the ‘Portuguese model’, Catherine Byrne stated: “It is common sense not to criminalise people who are mentally and medically sick”.

According to Pauline McKeown, “the misuse of drugs act needs to be updated to reflect the Health led response as set out in Reducing Harm: Supporting Recovery” she continues, “This Act needs to reflect the actual society – a global policy focus investment on the poor areas is the most important”. In those two strategies, we observed that none of them is linked to a global action in the poor neighbourhoods – where improving literacy, rent control and health assistance for drugs problem are priorities.

The feeling that the government doesn’t take a stand on that is present. The theories to explain why the government dithered to take action to combat that scourge in its wholeness are many: can be about having votes, about letting the drugs proliferate in the poor neighbourhood and rural states to buying labour peace or more clearly about maintaining 3 distinct social classes to do not mess with order of things.

 Hard to say. One thing is sure: whether authorities have chosen to do not face the problem – in its most extreme form – Ireland, as the last 40 years is convicted to stay on the estimation podium of European Drugs Observatory and, ‘the unclaimed’ of the Republic will continue to be.

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Barbara Debout