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Labour TD and former drugs minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (file photo) Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
Addiction

Irish society 'hates heroin users': Former minister hits out at drugs policy

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin says Ireland needs to reevaluate its attitude to people with addiction issues.

FORMER DRUGS MINISTER Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said Irish society “hates” heroin users and does not value their lives.

The Labour TD was speaking in the wake of dozens of overdoses on heroin laced with nitazene, a powerful synthetic opioid, last week.

At least 59 people have overdosed, but no deaths have been reported to date.

In an interview with The Journal, Ó Ríordáin said the fact that almost 60 people overdosed and could have died, doesn’t mean much to many people.

“It really infuriates me, you know, I get violently angry at the inability of people to take the lives of those who are affected by this issue seriously.

“If 59 cattle were struck down by some mystery illness, it would be all we’d be talking about.

“There would be maybe an emergency cabinet meeting, we would be told that this is hugely important for the agriculture industry, that we have to have an investigation about the economic implications of such a mystery illness.

“Fifty nine heroin users struck down over the last number of days and nobody genuinely gives a curse.”

Some of the people who overdosed recently likely would have died were it not for the availability of Naloxone.

The medication, which temporarily reverses the effects of opioids, was administered in many if not all of the overdose cases last week, homelessness and addiction support workers told The Journal.

The medication is carried by many drug users and is stocked by charities working in the homelessness and drug sectors.

Ó Ríordáin said some of the overdoses would likely have been avoided if there was a supervised injection facility (SIF) in Dublin.

Back in 2015, the Government approved additional heads for inclusion in the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2015 to allow for supervised injecting facilities.

At that time, Ó Ríordáin was Minister of State with responsibility for Drug Strategy.

Speaking in December 2015, he said the facilities would “play a significant role in reducing street injecting and drug related deaths”.

It’s now eight years later and Ireland still doesn’t have any supervised injection centres.

Legislation that paved the way for the first such facility was passed in 2017 but attempts to get one up and running have been mired in controversy and delayed by planning problems, mainly objections from locals.

Speaking this week, Ó Ríordáin was very annoyed by the lack of progress.

“We have already made solutions to save some of these lives, to make these overdoses more manageable.

“Plans for an overdose prevention facility or an injecting facility were passed by Cabinet in 2015, passed by the Oireachtas in 2017, then stuck in the [planning process] for the last number of years.

“But a department or a minister or government with a bit more energy around them would have found a way around it, would have found a separate site, organised a mobile clinic, done anything to ensure that these lives would not be lost or would not be threatened from overdose, and it just hasn’t been done.”

‘What did they expect?’

The SIF is finally expected to open in September 2024 – nearly a decade after Cabinet first signed off on the plan. However, given all the delays to date, Ó Ríordáin is not sure that will actually happen.

“I am not confident [the centre will open next year] because society collectively hates these people. It’s the only solution I can come to, it’s the only rationale – that we hate them, that we just don’t feel that they are worth it.

“It’s their own fault, it’s their own responsibility for the addictions that they have. If they overdose and die, well it’s just ‘what did they expect?’

We hate the way they walk, we hate the way they talk, we hate the way they look. And the less of them that we have to endure the better.

“If any other cohort of people was at risk of death – as these people clearly are – then everything would be done to stop it. But it just doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.

“I can’t come to any other conclusion and I wish I didn’t come to this conclusion because you know, we are compassionate people. In every political party, every walk of life, nobody wants to see people die from overdoses, of course they don’t.

“But legislation for the establishment of an injecting facility passed seven years ago and it still isn’t operational. How is that possible?

“And how does it not fuel the discussion of how many lives are we losing in between the various different stages of the planning process?”

  • This week’s episode of The Explainer featured Dr Austin O Carroll, who shared his own frontline experience of the recent cluster of overdoses, the lessons that can be learned from it, and what Ireland can do to prepare for the arrival of fentanyl. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

A spokesperson said Hildegarde Naughton, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, “is open to all and any proposals that would help reduce the harm caused by the use of drugs, including the possibility of mobile injecting services, however, the priority at this point in time is opening the supervised injecting facility at Merchants Quay”.

“The introduction of mobile injecting services would have to be considered in the overall policy and budgetary context.”

The spokesperson for the Department of Health noted that since An Bord Pleanála approved planning permission in December 2022 for Merchants Quay Ireland to establish the supervised injecting facility, the HSE and MQI have been developing plans to progress the establishment of the facility.  

The Department of Health has provided €1.5 million to the HSE to cover annual running costs of the facility.

“Over half of all drug deaths caused by injection overdose occur in Dublin City.

“The medically supervised injecting facility is a public health response to the reality of individuals who inject drugs and seeks to minimise the harm that injecting drug use causes to individuals, their families, and communities in Dublin city.

“It is anticipated that the facility will contribute significantly to a reduction in drug-related deaths and overdoses over time,” a statement noted.

A spokesperson for the HSE added that the organisation is continuing “to work towards the target of opening the facility in the second half of 2024″.

“The HSE is committed to a health-led response to the issue of drug use as set out in our National Drug Strategy,” they added.

’59 Trinity students’

Speaking about the fact the recent overdoses were linked to nitazenes, a synthetic opioid, Ó Ríordáin said “drug patterns change and we have to catch up with that stuff”, but the core issue remains the same.

“The fundamental cancer at the heart of the entire debate is the inability of any of us to really genuinely give a curse about lives that are lost [to heroin use].

If 59 college students in UCD or Trinity overdosed because of a dodgy batch of pills, we’d all know about it. But we don’t because the income bracket of those who are affected by this is not a particularly high income bracket.

“And they don’t have powerful friends or influential family members. That’s what it comes down to.

“I wish I could have a more medicalised view or a more restrained analysis, but it comes back and back and back again to the fact that these are heroin users, therefore they’re irrelevant.

“And 59 of them overdosing is just not going to reach the top of the political agenda at all because the political system is reflective of our society. And Irish society, if they were told that 59 heroin users had died, they wouldn’t really see what we’d lost.”

palestine 04_90693216 Gino Kenny TD (file photo) Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie / RollingNews.ie

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny agrees, saying Ó Ríordáin’s view is “bang on” and many people judge those with addiction issues on the margins of society.

It’s dreadful – nobody comes into the world wanting to be completely addicted, and to be overtaken by a drug like that. Nobody in the world, nobody.

“But we have a system where that cohort of people is marginalised and stigmatised. And a lot of people just don’t care.

“There are people, very good people, that do care about people like that. But there’s a lot of people that don’t care – particularly the establishment, who literally don’t care about them at all.”

Kenny said that many people end up using drugs because of the situation they are born into, or events that happen in their lives.

“I think the onus is on lawmakers to basically try to prevent certain circumstances, it’s not always possible, but they should actually give people respect and dignity if they are dealing with addiction.”

Kenny said the fact that more than 50 overdoses happened in such a short time period last week was “unprecedented”.

A heroin shortage is expected across Europe following a ban on poppy cultivation by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The vast majority of heroin consumed in Europe – about 95% – comes from Afghanistan.

Kenny told The Journal: “Thankfully, nobody has died. But this could be the beginning of a trend in relation to heroin itself, because the Taliban have [banned poppy cultivation] and there’s evidence to suggest that the supply of heroin could be disrupted.

“And if that happens, obviously, the gangs that control the heroin market will use another product similar to heroin, but much, much more powerful, much more harmful than heroin.

If people do not know what they’re consuming, we could see a lot of overdoses and deaths. These synthetic kinds of opioids don’t have to be made in Afghanistan, I mean they can be made in a garage.

“We’ve seen across the world where synthetic opioids have been extremely, extremely dangerous in relation to people’s health. So this is a very, very concerning trend.

“Again, this could be just a blip, but it may not be a blip. And if that supply breaks down, something else will be substituted in relation to heroin itself. We’ve seen in the United States, the amount of people that have died because of synthetic opioids.”

Citizens’ Assembly

The Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use last month recommended that the State should take a comprehensive health-led policy response to dealing with people who are in possession of drugs for personal use, rather than a criminal approach.

Kenny said he hopes the Government will listen, but there “is no will at this moment in time in this administration to go with the recommendations of the CA, there is none”.

“I will be very surprised if next year the Government turns around and says, ‘Okay, we will legislate in relation to the legislative recommendations from the CA’. I just don’t see that happening.

“And if that happens, I think the Citizens’ Assembly will be very discredited after that, very discredited.”

Kenny said, from his reading of their recommendations, the CA has essentially called for decriminalisation. “And that’s to me, that’s the minimum that needs to happen,” he added.

PBP’s Bill that would decriminalise cannabis for personal use is set to progress to second stage in the Dáil early next year.

Ó Ríordáin noted that the Labour Party position for the last 10 years is that “we need to decriminalise the drug user” and have a health-led, rather than criminal approach.

He noted that thousands of people are charged with drug possession for personal use every year in Ireland, something he views as a large waste of resources that doesn’t serve anyone.

“Of course, any policy makers, if they had a drug user in their own family, would not be advocating that they end up in the criminal justice system, they would want them to have a counsellor or a nurse or medical intervention,” Ó Ríordáin said.

Contains reporting by Jane Matthews

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