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Opinion: What Josepha Madigan got wrong about treatment for drug users

We cannot pretend drug addiction issues don’t exist, writes Jade Wilson.

Needles and drug paraphernalia found on the streets of Dublin
Needles and drug paraphernalia found on the streets of Dublin
Image: Joe Dunne via RollingNews.ie

I WAS 10 years old the first time I saw a man shoot heroin.

Despite the great attempt made by my parents to shield me from witnessing the drug epidemic in the flats where I grew up, this was inevitable. 

For weeks, parents had been throwing buckets of water over each of the stairwells in the block to keep the area clean. Or at least, as a naive young child, I thought that was their intention. The real aim was to keep the stairs wet at all times, in an effort to prevent their kids from seeing addicts sitting there to drugs. 

But we were already seeing this happen. We saw it in the man who always sat near Tesco drinking cans when we went in to buy our sweets, the man passed out in the field where we played chasing, and in the neighbours whose faces were gaunt and bodies emaciated from years of prolonged drug use. 

I never felt that any of these people were a danger to me as a child. When I ran down the stairs past that man, he gave me a sad smile. Even as a child, I felt empathy for him more than anything else. Nobody wants to find themselves sitting alone on cold, wet concrete doing drugs. 

So when Dublin City Council refused planning permission for the State’s first supervised injection centre last week, I felt outraged. The local authority are more concerned about the impact of supervised injection facilities on ‘the growing tourism economy’ than people who are at risk of overdose and death. 

There has been an ongoing rise in drug related deaths since records began in 2014. The National Drug-Related Deaths Index shows people who abuse drugs die at a rate of more than two people per day – whether it is from an overdose, liver disease, or hanging. 

DCC claim the opening of the centre would have a negative impact on local residents, but I believe the opposite. The delay harms local residents more. Supervised injection centres would result in a drop in overdose rates. Fewer lives would be at risk from accidental drug related deaths. Fewer children would witness drug use on their doorsteps and in the spaces they go to play with their friends. 

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan does not want a methadone clinic to run from a health centre in her Dublin Rathdown constituency. A spokesperson for the minister said: “The minister fully supports the provision of health services by the Health Services Executive, including methadone services for those requiring them.”

Yet her actions directly contradict this. The Minister lobbied against the opening of a methadone clinic in her constituency. The decision not to open this clinic means drug addiction will remain invisible to those in Madigan’s constituency. 

This is not an option for people who live in working class communities. And their lives matter just as much as those from the southside suburbs. 

Frankly, it is typical of the privileged to close their eyes and ears to the issues faced by vulnerable people like drug addicts. For many, methadone clinics are vital to their recovery process. And with the closure of the methadone clinic on Baggot Street, where does the Minister propose these people go to seek help and treatment instead? 

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was right to describe the Minister’s position on the issue as “a disgrace”. 

Justice Sheehan, a retired judge, recently said that to take steps in the direction of decriminalising drugs in Ireland “is to throw in the towel on the potential of young people.” 

But it is those already suffering who we have thrown the towel in on in this country. Instead, we favour middle-class comfortability over the health and safety of the working-class and the vulnerable. 

Without increased access to methadone clinics, and without the opening of supervised injection centres, what hope do those struggling with drug addiction have of finding the help they need? Studies have long shown us addicts are instead likely to become homeless and further marginalised in society. 

We cannot pretend these issues don’t exist. A drug epidemic cannot ever be solved by engaging in class war and the villainization of addicts. But it can certainly be improved with compassion and the provision of better services. 

I could not help that man on the steps when I was a child. All I could do was offer him a smile back. But there have always been people in positions of power who could help. Instead, the powerful too often make irresponsible decisions which obstruct that.

 Jade Wilson is a freelance broadcast researcher and occasional writer.

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