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Column Legislation changes our drugs landscape – but it isn’t a complete solution

It is time to acknowledge that drug and alcohol use is a part of modern society –and a public health issue to be managed, writes Tony Duffin.

DRUG DEALING IN Dublin City Centre has once again come into sharp focus. Garda operations are currently in force north (Operation Spire) and south (Operation Pier) of the Liffey clamping down on anti-social behaviour. Indeed, anti-social behaviour and a perception of Dublin’s streets as unsafe are a perennial problem in the capital, with drug use and drug dealing often involved.

In this regard, media and public reaction to the Garda operations have largely been positive. However, it is important to recognise that the Gardaí are currently limited in what they can do, since much of the visible drug dealing in Dublin City centre involves benzodiazepines. As the law currently stands, such drugs are exempt from the provisions of section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, which creates the offence of possession. However, this is set to change – a proposed amendment to existing legislation will, among other things, criminalise possession of such drugs. This means that the Gardaí will be better equipped to address city centre dealing.

What effect will this new legislation have? There is little doubt that it will impact on the circulation of illicit benzodiazepines. In 2010, the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act was introduced, largely in response to rapidly increasing levels of ‘head shop’ drug use. Many addiction services saw a significant decrease in the use of such substances following the introduction of the legislation.

Switching drugs

However, they did not necessarily see a fall-off in numbers, or in the level of need of those attending. For many people who have significant difficulties with drug use, the unavailability of their primary drug of choice will simply result in them switching to a different drug. In fact, many people began using head shop drugs in the first instance because of a drop in heroin supply. Once head shop drugs were restricted via the legislation, and heroin increasingly became available again, there was a shift away from head shop drugs back to the more traditional substances of choice – notably heroin and benzodiazepines.

The point is that for many chronically-addicted people, controlling (or eliminating) the supply of a certain drug does not necessarily result in them quitting drugs – it restricts the use of that drug. In any event, poly-drug use is widespread among people who use drugs, and many people who access addiction services use both heroin and benzodiazepines. Of particular interest in this regard is the reported bumper crop of opium in Afghanistan. According to the UNODC, opium production in Afghanistan rose by 49 per cent in 2013, meaning that there is more raw material for the production of heroin available. Further, it has generally been the case that increased Afghan production of opium translates into a corresponding increase in the availability of heroin on the illicit market throughout Europe.

If the enactment of legislation to increase controls on benzodiazepines coincides with increased heroin availability in Ireland, the natural result may be fewer benzodiazepines and more heroin on the illicit market. This could be problematic. As a general rule in the city centre, heroin is injected and benzodiazepines are swallowed. An increase in heroin use will thus likely lead to an increase in the frequency of injecting behaviours, with all that that brings (unsafe disposal of injecting equipment, blood borne virus transmission, greater risk of overdose, etc). Simply put, this would mean increased risks for everyone.

Addressing the fundamental causes

So, while legislation may change the landscape, it isn’t a complete solution. Criminal justice measures are often costly to implement and carry to their conclusion (it cost €65,000 on average to imprison one person for one year in 2012); and such measures don’t always (and aren’t designed to) address the fundamental causes of problematic behaviour related to drug use. There is a widespread acceptance that drug use is primarily a health issue. As the UNODC noted in its 2013 World Drug Report:

Countering the drug problem in full compliance with human rights standards requires an emphasis on the underlying spirit of the existing drug conventions, which is about health. Advocacy for a stronger health perspective and an interconnected re-balancing of drug control efforts must take place.

This is as true for local responses as it is for international responses. If we are to put in place meaningful solutions to the issue of drug use in Dublin, we need to do more than increasing the powers and workload of the Gardaí. Such an approach can shift the location and visibility of drug related anti-social behaviour, but does not address its root causes. It is time to acknowledge that drug and alcohol use is a part of modern society – it is a public health issue to be managed, and there are limited returns to be achieved from criminal justice responses.

There will always be people who struggle with substance use; we can’t eliminate that. While prohibitive and restrictive approaches limit access to substances which might otherwise be abused and cause harm to the wider population, they can also serve to maximise the harm to a smaller cohort – the chronically addicted. This relatively small group of people require a different approach. Many have co-morbid issues, such as homelessness and/or mental health difficulties. We need to be able to provide support at every opportunity so that when people facing these difficulties are ready to make a positive change in their lives they have that opportunity.

To this end, the most lasting solution to Dublin’s issues is to provide people with easily accessible treatment at critical moments when their motivation is high. It is important that we progress innovative initiatives like Medically Supervised Injecting Centres, where people can inject drugs in a safe environment, and Crisis Residential Units, providing medical stabilisation which is needs-based and accessible on demand. Such evidence-based services are common in other European cities, and if introduced here they would help to address the issues of drug related anti-social behaviour in Dublin City centre.

Tony Duffin is the Director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, a national addiction service working to reduce the harm caused by drug use in Ireland. Ana Liffey provided direct services to over 3,500 clients in 2012, many of whom are among the most marginalised from mainstream service provision. To find out more about the Ana Liffey’s services click here. To donate to the Ana Liffey, click here.

Follow the Ana Liffey Drug Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Read: Gardaí seize more heroin than any other drug on O’Connell Street

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