News broke in January this year that Dáil Éireann would debate the impending introduction of drug consumption centres, similar to those seen in parts of Germany, Switzerland and Australia. While critics of the programme highlight its flaws, the concept and research of the centres which have been set up around the world points to very positive results in many areas.
Former Minister for Drugs Strategy and current Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin says this is something that is hugely important to him as he was one of the foremost proponents in the fight to introduce drug consumption centres. Talking to the College Tribune, he spoke about how the positive reaction these centres have received throughout the process of making them reality has been due to the focus on harm prevention and saving lives. In Australia, one of the leading research models for Irish implementation, 4,400 overdoses were intervened upon between May 2001 and April 2010 with zero reported deaths from overdose. The 100% success rate speaks volumes for the effectiveness of the programme, and is being sought to counter Ireland’s spiralling heroin issue.
While Senator Ó Riordáin said that there has been very little conflict over the proposal within parliamentary circles, the mood among the wider public is much more divided. A quick scroll through social media shows many people still using derogatory language such as ‘junkie’, ‘scumbag’ and ‘skaghead’ as being normal and acceptable in describing drug addicts. As a society we are yet to confront the idea that people who hold drug addictions are not criminals, but rather citizens with severe health issues. The task of overcoming these stereotypes becomes all the more difficult when the criminalisation of drug use is still so stark within the wider public.
It is clear that there is still a huge stigma surrounding addicts and one of the main goals of the centres will be to break this stigma down. Ana Liffey Drug Project, one of the leading drug addiction centres in Dublin’s inner-city, aims to do so by educating the public on introductory information and harm reduction benefits. Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin spoke of how ‘Irish society has marginalised drug use and words like junkie which demean drug users only serve to feed into the toxic stereotype’. He hopes the centres will allow more addicts feel like they can come forward to get the help they need and get into a rehabilitation programme. However, this is where some of the main arguments against the injection centres come into play. Many critics feel that normalising the use of hard drugs by allowing people to consume them safely in these centres will only serve to promote and encourage drug use as well as lead to an increase in drug related crime in the area surrounding the centre as a result. The jury is out on whether or not supervised injection centres help reduce crime rates in a given locality, with The Journal.ie carrying out a fact-check on the issue back in February of this year. This is an argument used by both supporters and critics of injection centres, with the interpretation being totally polarised. People living in the communities where the centres will be located are worried about the affect it will have on their lives, arguing it may draw poorly on their areas.
The sight of people consuming drugs in public is often cited as being a negative mark on a community so the presence of injection centres could help counteract the negative perception that comes with public consumption. In terms of reducing the complaints made to the authorities, many realised that programmes such as these can only go so far in doing so, as is the case in the Netherlands. With the highest number of consumption centres globally, the decrease in public disturbance has been significant, with an acceptance rate of 80% by neighbourhoods, health providers and local police.
While addiction to heroin may not visibly be an issue in UCD and it may not be something that students believe topical within the college, it certainly is a challenge that many grapple with upon leaving university. Ó Riordáin pointed to the increased likelihood of people who have been disconnected from the mainstream to obtain a dependency on drugs. A recent study by the National Bureau for Economic Research analysed the relationship between poverty and drug abuse, and found that while there isn’t any direct causes, there is strong correlation. He pointed to English journalist Johann Harri’s quote saying that ‘the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection’. The concept that connection to the mainstream decreases the likelihood of becoming an addict is one that UCDSU’s Welfare Officer elect Eoghan Mac Domhnaill sees as being very important. As well as seeing the centres as a hugely important initiative he hopes to create more sensible attitude to drugs across the board by building on UCDSU’s ‘What’s in the Pill’ initiative, hoping to educate people on drugs more commonly used by UCD students.
The way the news of opening injection centres has been received is indicative of how Irish people a society as a whole is adjusting to finally recognise addiction as health issue. Active engagement with the issue head on versus simply ignoring and hoping that the same attitudes we have always had will eventually reap alternative results is key to creating progressive reform. Irish society seems to be engaging constructively in debating public policy solutions to the issue of drug use, rather than resorting to the traditional response of criticising perceived stereotypes of drug addicts.
Ailish Brennan Politics Writer