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'Communities are being devastated': Campaigners call for local drugs Task Forces to be 'at the heart' of national strategy

Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign have said local Task Forces are not included in decision-making with the HSE.

Image: Shutterstock/Oleksii Fedorenko

THE PARTNERSHIP APPROACH for the government’s National Drugs Strategy is “in danger of collapse”, former ministers and drugs campaigners have today warned. 

The National Drugs Strategy was widely welcomed by community activists when it was first unveiled in 2017. 

Two years later, however, each former drugs ministers since 1996 – when the original strategy was announced – are calling on the government to “restore confidence” in the plan, which they say has been undermined by the government’s “failure” to work with local Task Forces in tackling Ireland’s drugs problem.

The Department of Health, however, has said Minister Catherine Byrne and the Department of Health “are completely committed to community participation”. 

Renamed ’Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery — a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025′, the new strategy heralded a move away from a punishment approach to one of harm reduction and care and set out a pathway for local drugs Task Forces to play a key part in decision-making. 

“[The strategy] recognises the importance of supporting the participation of communities in key decision-making structures, so that their experience and knowledge informs the development of solutions to solve problems related to substance misuse in their areas,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the time. 

Task Forces, however, have been “treated as if they are HSE-led projects” rather than inter-agency partnership bodies, Fianna Fáil TD Pat Carey has said.

“Communities are being devastated by the impact of the drugs problem,” Carey said. 

“Drug-related deaths in Ireland are at the highest level ever – new drugs appear regularly on the illicit market while familiar drugs such as cannabis are becoming more potent, and far too many people are living daily with the nightmare of drug-related intimidation and violence,” he said. 

Carey has called for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to appoint representation at a senior level to the National Oversight Committee (NOC) to ensure that the partnership structures are supported.

Co-ordinator with Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign Anna Quigley told TheJournal.ie that a key part of the strategy was involving local communities, agencies and Task Forces in drug policy decision-making. 

Decisions, however, have been made predominantly by the Department of Health and the HSE since 2017, said Quigley, despite local agencies sitting on the National Oversight Committee which oversees the strategy’s implementation.  

In response, the Department said that “extensive community participation and representation on the 24 Drug and Alcohol Task Forces that play a key role in assessing the extent and nature of the drug problem in local communities and in ensuring that a coordinated approach is taken across all sectors to address substance misuse based on the identified needs and priorities in their areas”.

‘It’s not a partnership’ 

Community drugs projects deal with needs that arise at a local level said Citywide’s Quigley, including dealing with a variety of issues other than drugs.

However, decision-making at a top-down, HSE-led level, she said, means Task Forces are ultimately undermined. ”It’s taking away that broader focus we’ve to have,” she said. 

The Department allocates money to the HSE and the HSE allocates it in line with its National Service Plan, according to Quigley. 

“But you’re talking about partnership. That means you’ve all of the agencies involved together. Once you hand over fundamental decisions…if you give that role to one agency, which is what’s happening, then it’s not a partnership,” she said. 

Local agencies and Drugs Task Forces are best-placed to assess on-the-ground what funding is needed for different projects, she said. 

“The way you’re going to respond [to drug issues] is going to be different in different areas depending on the nature of the problem,” Quigley said. 

Ultimately, Quigley said, local Task Forces are being hampered.

In a statement today, former TD Pat Rabbitte said he was “concerned” the strategy, which recognised that community participation and inter-agency working is crucial to an effective response to drug issues, is not being implemented effectively. 

“At national, regional and local level, decision-making authority is being taken away from the Strategy’s partnership structures and is reverting to the Department of Health and the HSE, who now make the key decisions centrally and without consultation with communities,” he said.

Minister Catherine Byrne said: “I am committed to implementing an integrated public health response to substance misuse, and to supporting individuals, families and communities who are struggling with addiction and need intervention and support. 

“Working in partnership with statutory, community and voluntary sectors is central to this response, and I am confident the new strategic initiatives will have a positive impact and make a difference to people’s lives as they journey to recovery.

“The decision earlier this year to introduce a health diversion programme for persons in possession of drugs for personal use is a hugely important step in developing a public health approach to drug use. It delivers on a person-centred approach to harm reduction, which will benefit individuals and communities affected drug use. I am very pleased that we are delivering on this key commitment in the National Drugs Strategy.”

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