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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Aaron McKenna: To hell with the NIMBYs, injection centres are a great idea

Injection centres are not just services for addicts.They are services for every decent person who wants needles and users off the streets.

Aaron McKenna

MINISTER AODHÁN Ó Ríordáin has been at the front of the news agenda on a couple of fronts this week, with his proposals to introduce injection centres for drug addicts and even decriminalise certain drug possession marking a dynamic leap forward in Irish government policy making.

The war on drugs hasn’t even been a one-sided contest: It has been a total failure, a rout on every front. Armies are sent in to clear the fields where drugs are produced, and after the fighting and the killing there are other fields yet to conquer.

People try and fight drug cartels and are strung up from bridges en masse. Mules die with bags of drugs in their stomachs, and still more come. Navies and customs officials trumpet massive seizures of various drugs… and still more and more and more comes.

Then, when you finally get to the user we have social care facilities and health programs and revolving door prisons and yet the problem persists and persists. Users forced into the margins see their health decline even further than the drug alone should affect them, as they pick up secondary diseases from dirty needles or take product that is polluted with industrial grade crap.

The war on drugs has been a failure 

The war has been a failure because it has tried to combat human nature with a moral crusade. Softer drugs like marijuana are treated broadly the same as much harder, darker stuff like heroin; despite the fact that the effects of marijuana are comparable to well-legitimised alcohol.

Hard drug users, the moralisers tell us, must undergo their cold turkey or switch to a “more acceptable” drug like methadone, which is possibly one of the most wasteful treatments in our healthcare system in terms of patient outcomes.

We should, of course, work hard to keep people off drugs and help them remove themselves from the cycle of drug abuse and other mental health issues that may play into it. But the simple fact that we are all aware of is that the physical law enforcement war on drugs and the treatments currently offered to addicts are failing.

It is in this context that Minister Ó Ríordáin has brought forward some highly sensible proposals to put aside our moralising in favour of solutions that reduce the harm inflicted by hard drugs. In doing som, he is echoing the United Nations’ own body tasked with fighting the war on drugs, the Office on Drugs and Crime, which in a leaked report in October stated it is coming to the view that hard drugs should be decriminalised.

This has been part of the solution in countries like Portugal, Canada and The Netherlands where heroin is decriminalised.

Taking revenue from the drug cartels 

Fully legalising softer drugs like marijuana, meanwhile, is cutting into the profits of drug cartels more than running gun battles seem to have been able. Since some US states fully legalised and regulated the sale of marijuana, it has led to the brutal Mexican drug cartels losing billions of dollars’ worth of revenue now that the stuff can be “smuggled” from one part of the US to another.

Injection centres are an idea we can all probably see the wisdom in, unless you take a particularly inflexible moralistic line on drug use. Users are going to be injecting no matter what.

It is a fact, it has been a fact for a long time, and it will continue to be. While they’re out on the streets these users are prone to swapping needles, with predictable results for the contraction of diseases like hepatitis and HIV. When they are unsupervised, addicts can overdose. Sometimes they die, sometimes they make it to a hospital and have a long recovery period ahead.

Addicts will often inject in public, where children can see them. They also litter the place, and many public parks have to be closed off regularly so that staff can undertake the risky task of removing used needles. Sometimes people come into contact with them, as with the young boy who sat on a seat on the DART and pricked his finger on a needle.

Injection centres will cost a lot less 

All of these activities have major social impacts and they also cost the taxpayer a bomb. Managing a heroin user is one thing, managing one with HIV costs another stack. There is a cost to running an injection centre, but it’s probably less than the diffused costs of addicts operating on the streets.

Some people cry “But they’re criminals! They should be rounded up!” Rounded up and what, precisely? Be incarcerated indefinitely? An addict shoved into a cell to go cold turkey will simply return to being an addict in a lot of cases once he or she is let out.

Are you going to hang on to them in a prison (at a cost of €45,000 plus a year) forever? Or do you think we should just line them all up against a wall and shoot them? As Joe Stalin once said, “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”

As we are, unfortunately for the extreme hard liners, a civilized and sometimes rational society we are unlikely to look to either option. Instead, we need a practical solution such as Minister Ó Ríordáin proposes.

The major issue, as ever with these things, will be where to place such services. My office is in Dún Laoghaire these days, where there is a methadone clinic and various services for addicts and those in recovery. It is truly a shocking sight to see addicts of various kinds wandering around the place on certain days.

I’ve passed people on their haunches hanging onto a bin, defecating themselves in the street, sniffing solvents in doorways and all whilst barely present. I feel nothing but sympathy for guards sent out to deal with this mess. But we come back to a simple issue: If there isn’t services in Dún Laoghaire, there needs to be services somewhere else.

The placement of injection centres will spark a big row. It would be a pity if our parochially driven politics prevented the services from being provided, for they are not just services for addicts: They are services for every decent person who wants needles and users off the streets and away from folks trying to go about their everyday lives.

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