Dealing with drug use

Drug policy is complex, but it is entirely possible to implement a policy that would better manage drug use in Ireland. Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project gives his perspective on what’s happening now and next.

Drug policy has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Our policymakers have been lauded as progressive by important international figures in the area; and, following the imminent enactment of permissive legislation, 2017 will see Ireland open the first supervised injecting facility for people who are currently injecting drugs in the public domain.

The Programme for Partnership Government sets out very clearly the key programmes and strategies in health, including ‘supporting a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drugs use’. Effectively, this implicitly recognises that the traditional policy ground has very much shifted. We’re firmly in the health sphere and not the criminal justice sphere with regard to drug use. There’s been a paradigm shift; and, this change, is very much to be welcomed. It requires dealing with people on the basis that their drug use, be it problematic or not, is first and foremost a health issue.

In my experience most people agree with that analysis. When we think of someone who has issues with substance use, do we want to spend scarce state resources on policing, court appearances, and even incarceration? Of course not. Leaving aside whether it’s morally or ethically right, it is simply not effective. The reality is that criminalising simple possession doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The available evidence indicates that determining whether or not it is a crime to possess drugs for your own use does not have any significant effect on the prevalence of drug use in an open society like Ireland. It is, however, an expensive and stigmatising way to deal with the issue. In line with the programme for partnership government we should be focusing on health and freeing the criminal justice system up to use its resources to deal with other issues.

Of course, it’s important to note that health is not just the absence of disease. Nor is it easily separated into mental and physical health. It’s a multifaceted concept that impacts on all areas of a person’s life. At Ana Liffey, we work with people who can find it difficult to access other services. They tend to have multiple and complex needs, and it can be easy to exclude them for contravening the strict parameters of the service on offer. That is not good enough. As a society, we need to provide services that meet people’s needs, not find people that meet the entry criteria for the services we provide – something that happens all too often. Drug use and the reasons for it are not simple things. The eminent psychiatrist Griffith Edwards once noted that dealing with drugs is only partly about dealing with the drugs themselves, but is also to do with what life can offer that is as good as, or better than, intoxication. Professor Edwards’s words are very telling. A successful drug policy is not simply about drugs. It is about people, and about how they see themselves and others. And having drug users identified as criminals for no reason other than their drug use is unhelpful.
There is no one size fits all drug policy. Like all policy areas, drug policy is complex and it’s not about absolutes, it’s about finding what works best for our country, at this point in time, given our current constraints and challenges. It’s natural to want to have a drug policy that will ‘solve’ our drug problem. However, this is a distraction that leads to very damaging policy choices. The reality is that drug use is not a ‘problem to be solved’. Rather, it is something that needs to be managed, and something that needs to be informed by evidence.

At Ana Liffey, we do a lot of work in the policy space with national and international colleagues, in addition to being a trusted provider of direct services in Ireland. We’re always looking to expand our network and connect with people where there might be a mutual benefit. If you’re interested in what we do, we’d love to hear from you.


For more about the Ana Liffey’s services


Tel: +353 87 328 3666


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