ACT UP march for syringe exchangeLast week at the London School of Economics, TD Aodán Ó Ríordáin announced plans to decriminalise drugs in Ireland, and to open medically supervised injecting centres across the country. This progressive shift in drug policy is a reaction to the failure of the ‘war on drugs’, and focuses instead on engaging with addicts, with the hope of reducing harm. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, not only in treating recreational users and victims of drug abuse alike with compassion, but also in minimising the risk of diseases often contracted through intravenous drug use.
If Minister Ó Ríordáin’s plans for decriminalisation truly engage with addicts, and the problems they face every day, harm reduction efforts in Ireland, such as supervised injecting centres, will serve as more than just safe places to shoot up: the promise of safe disposal of dirty needles will ensure that the risk of contracting blood-borne diseases is minimal. Data from the Cato Institute, a think tank based in the US, shows that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates. However in another area the effects have been widely noticed; STI rates have decreased drastically in the fifteen years since decriminalisation. Britain, whose drug policy was also addressed in the discussion, have been reluctant to implement such changes, despite their efficacy in preventing the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C and B, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The shift in focus towards supervised injecting centres and away from methadone clinics will undoubtedly change the culture of drug use in Ireland. The increase in methadone-related deaths over the last few years clearly demonstrates the impracticality of replacing one addict’s drug of choice with a near identical one. It is apparent that alternative methods of care, like counselling and needle exchange facilities, are proving more effective in reducing harm both among drug users and the general public. Fears that injection centres could encourage recreational drug use have been quashed by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who gave his assurance that the centres would not be a ‘free for all’ of casual drug use, but would instead target drug users at serious risk of harm.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, statistics show that the move towards decriminalisation is also popular among the general public. Due to the prevalence of drugs among young adults, many of us have witnessed or even experienced the power of addiction, and the damage it does to families and social groups. The National Family Support Network, an organisation that supports families living with substance abuse, recently conducted a poll at their annual conference which indicated that 80% of families in attendance were in favour of Ireland’s bid to decriminalise drugs. The move away from criminalising drug users is a welcome change from prosecuting and imprisoning people for non-violent crimes. Altering the public’s perception of addiction from one of criminality to one of illness is integral to the changing of social attitudes and the de-stigmatisation of drug addiction.
  • By Shane Whooley