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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
RTÉ GAA footballer Philly McMahon

Drug addiction in Ireland still a 'dirty secret', GAA star Philly McMahon says

McMahon lost his brother John to a drug overdose in 2012.

DRUGS ADDICTION IN Ireland is still “a dirty secret”, Dublin GAA footballer Philly McMahon has said ahead of this week’s premiere of his documentary The Hardest Hit at the Irish Film Institute.

Irish people’s attitudes towards drugs have changed to an extent, McMahon told

But as long as the laws governing drugs policy remain in place then people’s opinions will not change, he said. 

McMahon, who lost his brother John to a drug overdose in 2012, has been gradually raising awareness around the issue of drug use over the past few years. 

“From a very young age I struggled with embarrassment and anger due to a lack of education about addiction,” he says. 

“I thought I knew a lot about addiction at that age because my brother was an addict. But I didn’t know half of what I needed to know.”

In The Hardest Hit, McMahon travels to Portugal, a country with a model of decriminalisation that McMahon argues should be looked at in Ireland. 

Ana Liffey Drug Project / Vimeo

The country decriminalised the use of illegal drugs in 2001. Experts have said the move resulted in a reduction in the number of infections among intravenous drug users and a significant drop in drug-related crimes.

Ireland’s current system, by comparison, stigmatises the addict rather than looking at drug use as a mental health issue, McMahon argues. 

The Dublin footballer described his visit to Portugal as “a real eye-opener”. 

My objective was to go over and question everything so that I’d have the answers if someone questioned me when I got home.

Since his return, McMahon has been informing people about the effectiveness of that decriminalised system. 

In October, a report drawn up by the Ana Liffey Drug Project in Dublin and the London School of Economics argued that small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised and a health-based approach adopted in Ireland.

“The message of the Portuguese system can be dampened by people who think that when you decriminalise drugs the floodgates open,” says McMahon. “It’s illegal to take drugs, though. That message never changes.”

A law that became active in Portugal in 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.

‘A lack of education’

Ireland’s current drugs policy discriminates against people from lower and lower-middle class backgrounds and will continue to do so, says McMahon. 

As long as drug offences are dealt with by Ireland’s judicial system, people will continue to feel stigmatised, he says. 

Decriminalisation, however, shifts drugs policy from a criminal system to a healthcare-based one.

“The Gardaí are spending time pulling over drug addicts with personal use [drugs]. Doing that is not going to change anything.”

“I’ve never heard a Garda ever say ‘I pulled over a drug addict, I incriminated him and now he’s clean, now he’s a recovering addict.”

“We’ve to realise that the impact we’re having through our policy is negative not positive.”

In making the documentary, McMahon aims to not only tell his own story but to educate people about the cause and effect of addiction and the detrimental impact Ireland’s current drug policy has on people. 

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