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Simon Harris: Injecting centres do not legitimise drug use - if we're serious about tackling addiction we must establish one

The Minister for Health says that the government must and will shoulder its responsibilities in this area.

Simon Harris TD

ADDICTION DOES NOT discriminate. It does not favour a gender, age, or geography. There are few families, towns or counties that have escaped the scourge of addiction.

There are many faces of addiction. We still have many challenges when discussing tobacco, alcohol and food addiction but thankfully, these conversations have begun.

However, when we discuss drug addiction, we fail to see past the labels. We paint a picture of addiction, which fails to recognise it is an illness which is relentless in its pursuit and ignorant of its prey.

We create stereotypes through our loose language compounding the isolation felt by the most vulnerable in our society.

And it must stop. I have spent the past two weeks visiting facilities such as Merchant’s Quay and Saol and met incredible staff and service users.

When I visited Saol, I heard directly from women battling addiction. I listened, we sang, we laughed and cried.

Their experiences were raw and powerful, but their determination and bravery were inspiring. I think particularly of one woman whose path led to prison. She told me about the many obstacles she has faced in battling addiction.

In spite of all, she spent her time in prison studying and went on to attend UCD as a student. She refused to let her illness define her future, despite many people framing the narrative for her.

While in Merchant’s Quay, I met a formidable woman called Mags. She has been working in Merchants Quay for 26 years. She describes the difference between the stereotypes we hear and read about and the people who sit in front of her every day.

Before a crowd, many appear macho or strong but behind her closed door, their vulnerability appears.

Mags challenged me to walk a day in her shoes, to meet the men, women, children and families living with addiction – a challenge I am willing to accept.

Throughout the many conversations I have had, it is clear the barriers erected by society are the most painful for people living with addiction to shoulder.

Many discussed relapsing when they failed to find employment or adequate housing, or their attempts to stop but being surrounded by drug use.

They spoke of obstacles faced when accessing health services and the cavalier attitude of some medical professionals towards their illness.

But every single person I met felt society had abandoned them. It is clear we – all of us – are failing to tackle the scourge of addiction.

Government’s role

The government must and will shoulder its responsibilities in this area. We are progressing our Housing First policy. Housing First provides immediate access housing without preconditions.

It is a client-led service, delivered by a team providing intensive supports. Once the person is housed, a range of other health and social supports are provided, including harm reduction treatment services.

We must establish a Supervised Injection Facility. Despite what its critics suggest, this is not legitimising drug use. It is acknowledging that drug use is occurring on our streets, often in broad daylight in front of our children.

The Supervised Injection Facility will provide a safe and medically supervised facility for people to inject. It will result in fewer deaths and provide a safe place for people to use drugs.

We are also changing the law to ensure a health-led approach to people found in possession of drugs. This will mean on the first occasion, An Garda Síochána will refer people, on a mandatory basis, to the Health Service Executive for a health screening and brief intervention.

On the second occasion, An Garda Síochána would have discretion to issue an Adult Caution. Drug use will still be a crime but we will, for the first time, offer people help rather than handcuffs.

We must also remove barriers to education, health and employment. The government will respond to that challenge.

But I strongly believe society must respond too. We must put our prejudices aside and respond with compassion.

We must stop pretending drug addiction is something that cannot affect you or I. We must push ourselves out of our comfort zone, rid ourselves of ignorance and face up to the challenge that faces us.

We cannot banish our friends, neighbours, colleagues or relatives to the shadows.In addressing this issue, we too must acknowledge drug addiction goes beyond the person battling the illness.

It affects their family, their friends and their community. Nobody is immune from its clutches.

Nobody wants to be dependent on drugs, but I also know it is an illness than can happen to anyone. I also believe people can recover with the right help and assistance.

I won’t shirk from this responsibility and I know society will not either.

Simon Harris is the Minister for Health

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