Drug addicts: Irish minister calls for 'more sympathetic' approach

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Image caption Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the drugs message taught in Irish schools was ineffective

The Irish minister responsible for drugs strategy is calling for the decriminalisation of possession of small quantities of drugs, including class A substances like heroin.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has told the BBC that the "Just Say No" message, taught in schools, is ineffective and "a lie".

The Irish Labour Party politician has called for a more sympathetic approach to dealing with addicts.

He emphasised that what he was proposing is decriminalisation

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Image caption Mr Ó Ríordáin said drug users should not be criminalised for their sickness

This means that people would, in practice, not face prosecution, but it does not mean the legalisation of drugs.

"You are talking about decriminalising the person, not the drugs," Mr Ó Ríordáin said.

"Show me how arresting someone who is injecting heroin is going to help that person change their behaviour.

"If somebody is involved in pushing drugs or stealing and robbing to feed their habit, that's absolutely criminal behaviour.

"But we will have more time and resources to deal with that if we are not criminalising someone for their sickness."

The idea is based on a scheme already used in Portugal.

But any move towards decriminalisation would be controversial and there has already been criticism from some within Fine Gael, the senior party within the Republic of Ireland's coalition government.

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Image caption Used syringes can be found lying around the streets of Dublin

Last week, separate proposals by Mr Ó Ríordáin and Irish Health Minister Leo Varadkar to introduce medically-supervised injection centres were accepted by the government.

The legislation has still to go through the Irish parliament but, if passed, it would allow addicts to take drugs in a safe and clean environment.

Dublin, in particular, is facing a number of problems caused by addicts injecting heroin in public areas.

Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project took me on a tour of the cobbled alleyways around the city.

In several places, there were syringes lying on the ground.

Some needles were also left on windowsills and stuck in corners.

"That's a blue spike (syringe) over there which would be for groin injecting," said Tony, as he pointed out needles close to where families were doing their Christmas shopping.

"People who are not well and are craving opiates, they may pick that up and use it," he said.

That would inevitably lead to users sharing needles that could lead to the spread of HIV and other infections.

Injecting in public

While critics say it would be wrong to spend public money on opening injection centres, drugs charities argue that the cost is small compared to the amount spent on treating people who became ill or overdose.

"I would say that in any given week, every alley way in Dublin is used for public injecting at some point," said Mr Duffin.

"We think that there are around 400 individuals in Dublin city centre that inject themselves in the public domain in any given month.

"But that is a very conservative estimate. We believe it could be up in the thousands."

Sharing needles

On a bridge over the River Liffey, I spoke to Stephen who was begging for money.

He had experience of drugs and knew the effect they could have.

"In 2014, I had 16 friends who died from overdosing from using heroin," he said.

But would he and his friends share needles?

"Well I wouldn't - mostly not... No," he initially insisted.

"In saying that, it happens.

"If there was one needle there... Obviously they probably would."

There are people who are deeply opposed to the idea of decriminalisation but who say they would welcome the opening of clean injection centres.

They include some who have campaigned against drugs.

Christy Burke, a councillor and former lord mayor of Dublin, said 287 people have died as a result of taking illegal drugs in his constituency over the last 15 years.

"Look at everyone in my constituency who started off on small amounts of hash, cannabis or prescribed drugs," said Councillor Burke.

"They all ended up completely addicted."

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Image caption Syringes found on the streets of Dublin

However, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who has been taken on the same journey to see the syringes on the streets of the city, remains convinced that change is needed to properly address the drugs problem.

"I think there is a lot of hypocrisy with this issue," he said.

"If you go into a classroom and say to kids 'just say no', they don't connect with that message, because they know it is a lie.

"They know a lot of their parents were taking cocaine during the Celtic Tiger period.

"And they know Ireland has an absolutely dysfunctional relationship with alcohol."

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