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File image of Minister of State Frank Feighan. Sam Boal

'War on drugs’ not an effective response to usage, minister tells committee

However, Frank Feighan was criticised during the Oireachtas committee for his approach to drug policy.

THE MINISTER OF State for the national drugs strategy has told an Oireachtas committee that a “war on drugs is not an effective response” to usage.

The Joint Committee on Health met this morning to hear from Minister of State Frank Feighan for an update on the national drugs strategy.

Ireland’s national drugs strategy was released in 2017 and the government said policies are now aimed towards a more health-led approach to drug use. 

Feighan told the committee that the strategy commits to this approach “whereby drug use is treated as a public health issue and not primarily as a criminal justice matter”.

“And let me be clear: a war on drugs is not an effective response to drug use,” he said. 

He also reiterated the strategic priorities for 2021-2025 under the plan including a focus on protecting children and young people from drug use, enhancing the access and delivery of community drug and alcohol services and a focus on harm reduction and integrated care pathways for high-risk drug users.

Feighan said that these priorities are to be linked to “outcome indicators” to measure the impacts such as figures on cannabis use among young people, the number of people receiving treatment and the number of drug-related deaths.

He told the committee that drugs continue to be a “major policy challenge” in Ireland.

According to Feighan, 9% of the population used an illegal drug in the last year. 9,700 cases were treated for problem drug use in 2020, with another 5,800 cases treated for problem alcohol use.

He paid tribute to frontline drug and alcohol services for their work during the pandemic. “The designation of drug services as essential services at the start of the pandemic was a significant acknowledgment by the government of the importance of this sector,” he said.

Feighan was joined at the committee by Jim Walsh, the principal officer in the drugs policy and social inclusion unit at the Department of Health and Dr Eamon Keenan, the national clinical lead for addiction in the HSE. 

Sinn Féin’s Thomas Gould asked the minister about the removal of a group of nurses specialising in addiction from the National Oversight Committee (OAC) on Drugs.

The Ireland Chapter of International Nurses Society on Addiction (IntNSA) served on the NOC until December when they were removed after Feighan’s decision to reconfigure the committee, resulting in their representative member being forced to step down. 

Feighan said that he hopes to meet with the nurses in the next few days “to resolve the issues that have been raised in this regard”. 

Gould also asked the minister if he could give a commitment that places on the NOC on Drugs will be retained for voluntary and community groups, as well as nurses, but Feighan did not give a commitment. 

Citizens’ assembly

It was reported earlier this month that campaigners are increasingly confident that a citizens’ assembly on drug use could take place this year. 

However, in response to a question from Social Democrats leader Róisín Shortall about when the assembly will take place, Feighan said there is currently no proposed date for it to begin.

He said it had been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but confirmed that the Department of Health is liaising with the Department of an Taoiseach and said he expects it will take place “in the lifetime of this Government”. 

The three coalition parties, upon entering government in 2020, committed to holding a citizens’ assembly on drug use, which advocates say could be a major opportunity to rethink drug policy in Ireland.

Shortall also raised the issue of nurses being removed from the NOC on Drugs, and asked Feighan if it is his intention to appoint an addiction nurse representative to it.

“I would certainly think yes, it is,” Feighan responded. 

Lynn Ruane

During the course of the meeting, Feighan said there is currently “no desire at government level to decriminalise or legalise drugs, especially cannabis.”

Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan deemed cannabis a “gateway drug” during the meeting, stating that it is being given to children to create addiction and a market for drugs. 

Following this, Independent Senator Lynn Ruane said the meeting had been “one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever had to listen to” regarding drug use and criticised the language being used, such as “the myth of gateway drugs” and “the moralisation of people’s drug use”. 

“Minister, the war on drugs has happened right in front of your eyes today,” she said.

The war on drugs costs lives, it’s discriminatory, it’s moralistic, it’s a breach of civil rights, it criminalises poverty. If you want to focus on drug use, you need to forget the type of drug that’s being used and you need to look at poverty and marginalisation, everything that this government has got to say in to. Criminalise poverty, not people for their drug use.

She asked Feighan to define what he meant by “the war on drugs” not being an effective response to drug use and said the phrase is not about destigmatisation, but about criminalising those that use drugs.

She asked him if he thought drug users were criminals. He responded by saying that people who use drugs “have human rights” and reiterated that a health-led approach is needed instead of punishment.

Labour Senator Annie Hoey also said the minister needs to understand the difference between the decriminalisation and the legalisation of drug use.

Crack cocaine

Fine Gael’s Colm Burke raised the issue of the increase in crack cocaine use in the country. Feighan said he has announced €850,000 in recurring funding over the next three years for a HSE-led initiative to “reduce health-related harms associated with the use” of the drug.

On this point, Keenan said a student survey on drug use in higher education institutes will be released tomorrow that will show “a substantial increase in cocaine use in this population”. 

“We’re going to be allocating about €50,000 of that for training so that across the country we can provide training for staff to deliver appropriate evidence based-interventions to people who are presenting with health problems associated with cocaine and crack cocaine,” Keenan said.

Feighan was also asked about funding for community healthcare organisations (CHOs), including the Tallaght Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, to support people in areas negatively affected by drugs.

A report published by the task force on the use of drugs in the Tallaght and Whitechurch areas of Dublin found that the number of people being treated for addiction issues in its projects has doubled in the last ten years, but it still believes it is only reaching 25% of the true need.

It said that community services in the areas are at “breaking point” and urgently need additional resources.

The task force report called for an additional €1 million in government funding each year to cover more staff, resources for alcohol support programmes, a detached youth work project, and expanding crack cocaine programmes.

However, Feighan said between €200,000 and €240,000 in funding will be allocated to the nine CHOs every year, who will then commission community-based drug and alcohol services based on an assessment of population needs.

With reporting from Jane Moore.

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