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Used hypodermic needles for disposal at a US exchange Robert F. Bukaty/AP/Press Association Images

Column To fight the drug problem, we must treat users with compassion

Demonising drug users creates social outcasts, while the real criminals go free. We need to try a humane approach, writes Tim Bingham.

THE HEALTH RESEARCH Board recently reported the number of deaths caused by drugs in Ireland has risen by 51 per cent over a six-year period.

Research has shown that 638 people died in 2009, compared with 422 in 2004. Alcohol was accountable for 40 per cent of all poisoning deaths during the six-year period, while heroin caused 21 per cent.

In 2001, in response to the continuing rise of fatal overdoses and HIV, Portugal introduced a new policy which it decriminalised the use and possession of illicit street drugs. Since the new drugs policy was introduced the overdose rates and HIV rates have reduced and this has reduced the amount of addicts being sent to prison and increased the number accessing treatment.

Sending an addict to prison does not help the individual or society. They have a criminal conviction and when they are released many find it hard to find employment and move on due to their conviction. For many it’s a revolving door in and out of prison. Recently, the Law Reform Commission said the minimum sentence for drugs offences has led to an increase in the prison population without any major effect on the criminals at the top of the illegal drugs trade.

In Portugal, instead of being sent to prison, people are being provided with help from treatment agencies and are learning to control their drug use. Removing the criminalisation of personal drug use and treating individuals more humanely has helped to reintegrate these individuals back into society.

Treating an addict humanely engages the person with professional services, so that a rapport is built up between the worker and the person. The addict is a person, a father, a mother, a son, a daughter. Many people only see the chaotic behaviour of the individual; no one ever sees the life they have lived beforehand. The addiction is the pressing issue which is visible for people to see, and it’s easy for anyone to make a judgement; to call them junkies.

‘Needle exchanges still challenge people’

In the past 15 years I have worked with a variety of people from a number of socio-economic backgrounds. These people who use substances have experiences of trauma, abuse, violence and physical injuries that damaged their lives and led to the use of drugs to numb the pain.

Needle exchanges are services that still challenge people. These services are confidential, and provide a safe place where drug users can talk to a professional. Needle exchange services have been proven to reduce the transmission of HIV and Hep C – so much so that since needle exchanges have been introduced into Ireland the HIV rate amongst injecting drug users has reduced every year. People are shown how to inject safely and are provided with new and correct equipment.

The services work with the most marginalised individuals who because of their addiction lead chaotic lives. These individuals, who are at risk of overdose and death, are shown how to reduce the risk. The services also have links with GPs and nurses providing much-needed health care, and they open doors to treatment and rehabilitation services.

At the time of austerity measures we have to ensure that drug services are maintained and not reduced. In Greece since austerity measures were introduced, drug services were reduced and this has resulted in a significant increase of 25 per cent in the HIV rate amongst injecting drug users.

Addicts need to treated humanely and with dignity. No one sets out in life to be an addict, or chooses this path as a lifestyle.

Tim Bingham is the co-ordinator of the Irish Needle Exchange Forum. To learn more about the forum, visit

More: One drug user’s story>

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