For a country in perpetual denial over its massive alcohol problem – and where women are criminalised for having an abortion – news that Ireland is to set up a safe injecting centre for heroin users, and is moving towards drug decriminalisation, is – frankly – a bit of a surprise.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish Labour party minister in charge of the national drugs strategy, announced yesterday that a supervised injecting room – where chronic heroin users can inject away from back alleys and dirty needles – would be opened in Dublin next year. He also said he will be pushing for the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal amounts.
This is no whimsical wish list. With the help of one of the country's leading drug charities, the Anna Liffey Project, Ó Ríordáin has drawn up the draft legislation needed to set up the facility, and is confident of getting cabinet approval later this month. Moreover, he has pledged to make decriminalisation a key plank of discussions on a re-calibrated Irish drug strategy.
"As a minister, if you get the drugs portfolio, you can do the simple, safe thing and continue with the 'drugs are bad, just say no, stop taking them' [line], or you can deal with the reality. When you meet people involved, you realise it's a lot more nuanced than that," Ó Ríordáin said yesterday at a meeting organised by the International Drug Policy Project at the London School of Economics.
The minister, who played a key role in legalising gay marriage in Ireland (a move branded "a defeat for humanity" by the Vatican) – and in gaining equal rights for the LGBT and traveller communities – says drug users are similarly demonised.
"What the debate about safer injecting rooms is really about is, 'We really don't like these people, they are a sub-species, less than human, we should just sweep them away and it will all be better,'" said Ó Ríordáin. "If you are a citizen of the Republic, you should be treated as a citizen of the Republic. If you have illness, society needs to treat you."
But why now, and why is this progressive drug stuff happening in Ireland instead of, say, the UK?
Safer injecting rooms are old news in Europe. They've been around in various guises – from mobile injecting "ambulances" to premises where state-funded diamorphine is injected alongside the provision of food, showers, counselling and treatment – for 30 years.
In the Netherlands and Germany, they're all over the place, with 31 facilities in 25 cities in the Netherlands and 24 in 15 cities in Germany. They're in Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, Norway and Luxembourg. One is due to be opened in France. Outside Europe, there are safer injecting rooms in Vancouver and Sydney.
The overwhelming evidence – and these places have been evaluated to within an inch of their lives (the InSite facility in Vancouver has been the subject of 40 scientific research papers) – shows safer injecting rooms are undeniably a good thing.
They reduce public disorder, crime and needle litter. They save huge amounts of public money. They reduce needle sharing and the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Most importantly, they reduce overdoses and deaths. There have been no deaths at either the Sydney facility, set up in 2001, nor the Vancouver facility, which started in 2003.
With a worse heroin problem than most of their European neighbours, it seems odd that the UK and Ireland have been so slow to help out some of their most vulnerable citizens in this way. But when you consider the dominance of the propaganda-spurting, junkie-hating right-wing media – and the cowardly politicians in these two countries – it starts to make sense.
It was only four years ago that a columnist in the Irish Independent wrote about how junkies were "vermin... feral worthless scumbags" who should be sterilised. He said that he would "cheer if every junkie died."
That Ireland looks to be turning a corner on this kind of medieval view is testimony to two things: grassroots activism and a brave politician.
When Anna Quigley started Citywide – a national network of community activists that helps drug users – in 1995, the initial feeling from people was that heroin addiction needed to be dealt with by tightening up law and order. Or by vigilantes attacking drug dealers. But things have changed.
"Over the years, people have seen the impact that criminalisation has had on people who are addicted, who are often their own friends and family," Quigley told me. "They know why drug users commit crime, and that sending them through the courts for possession is counter to supporting and reintegrating them. They understand that a safer injecting room targeting chronic heroin users makes sense, and they are willing to look at decriminalisation."
For once, this is the community talking, the people who experience the downsides of drug addiction day-in and day-out, not some right-wing MP who has parachuted into a deprived neighbourhood for five minutes to harp on about "the reality on our council estates".
Ó Ríordáin is brave, but he's not stupid. The reason he's run with the drug reform ticket is that, unlike most other politicians, he realises that the Irish public is changing its attitude towards the drug problem. He has decided to take his lead from the community, rather than the media or his political rivals. He is fast running out of time to achieve all the drug policy changes he wants – there is an election in Ireland next year – but Ó Ríordáin is bringing things forward.
So will the UK follow suit? The short answer is no. In 2013, an independent drug commission was set up by Green MP Caroline Lucas to look into the feasibility of setting up a safer injecting room in Brighton. Predictably, the right-wing press called it a "back door to legalisation". But it hit the rocks because of legal problems.
Mike Trace, a former UK deputy drugs tsar who headed the commission, told VICE: "The bottom line is the national government don't want to allow them. To get an officially recognised [safe injecting room] off the ground, you need your local police force to interpret a section of the Misuse of Drugs Act in a certain way. The Home Office have consistently maintained the view that [safe injecting rooms] are contrary to the act, and there are no plans to amend it."
There is a huge body of evidence to show that safer injecting rooms not only reduce public injecting, but also the spread of fatal infections and overdoses. With the recent leaking of a report by the UN's office on drugs, which appeared to lend weight to decriminalisation, Ireland's rapidly evolving drug policy position actually seems less surprising than the fingers-in-ears attitude of the UK Home Office.
If only British politicians would do what Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has done – take the time to listen to the communities where drug addiction hits hardest, to witness first hand how our drug policies are causing unjust neglect and punishment of our sickest citizens – they might realise that the wilful stupidity of the status quo.
By Max Daly/Nov. 3, 2015
Photo: Jake Lewis