We as a society have allowed harmful drug policies to stigmatise and dehumanise a vulnerable cohort of people for far too long.
How will historians, sociologists, lawmakers, and medical experts explain it to future generations? How will they justify the more than 40 years of prejudice that has resulted in the cruel and inhumane treatment of drug users?
The latest example of this prejudice is the flood of objections Dublin City Council has received to a planning application from Merchants Quay Ireland to set up a pilot medically supervised injecting facility.
MQI already provides services to help drug users stay as safe and healthy as possible, including a needle exchange programme. The idea now, according to MQI’s planning application, is to set up seven booths inside their building, where people could safely inject drugs under medical supervision.
This would be a good, useful thing, says Karl Grant, who is 39. “I’m homeless since age 12, I’m on drugs since childhood,” he told me, recently. “I’m suffering from lung disease and chronic hepatitis. I’m not injecting today but if I was I’d need to be be in a place where I can use that is sterile, otherwise I’d die. I can’t heal from a cold properly today.”
The dozens of objections to the application to open the medically supervised injecting facility complain that MQI’s existing facility attracts antisocial behaviour to an area next to a school, residences, businesses, and Temple Bar, one of the city’s prime tourist areas. They worry that the injecting facility would bring even more of this.
The culture of drug use has for over 40 years developed and evolved in and around Dublin city centre. That is where drug users are, and so that is where services for them also need to be, including both those that are now offered at MQI and the proposed injecting facility.
Supervised injecting facilities have to be located where they are needed the most. Most of those who use supervised injecting facilities are likely to be homeless and suffering chronic drug use. They are not going to leave the area where they normally buy drugs in order to use them.
MQI already runs a needle-exchange programme. Doesn’t it make sense to open the medically supervised injecting facility near where people receive clean needles and can dispose safely their used needles?
Furthermore, MQI’s needle exchange has been in practice over 20 years and has plenty of experience in dealing with “antisocial behaviour”, which in many instances is caused by people suffering mental-health difficulties who self-medicate with illegal drugs.
Society perceives a lot of mental-health problematic behaviours by drug users as antisocial behaviours, and I suppose that’s what they look like. Gardaí are called to defuse chaotic behaviours by arresting and charging drug users with public-order offences.
“In relation to antisocial behaviour, most are caused due to fears and arguments over the dirt in the drug we buy, and we are fighting over the safety of taking our drugs in peace,” says Grant. “It’s also due to sharing needles with each other down laneways, in addition to our friends dying in front of us. A safer injecting facility will help with all that. We won’t be fighting as much then.”
Says Christine O’Connor, who is 49 years old: “You give respect and you’ll get it back. Treat people they way you want to be treated. We have suffered inhumane and stigmatised treatment all our adult lives due to our illicit drug use.”
When we look at injecting drug users on our streets we don’t see the pain in their eyes or the complex traumas that many have suffered during childhood. What we are taught to think by media sensationalism is that drug users act disgracefully and that they should be ashamed of themselves. Well, most are, and they do not want to continue feeling or behaving this way.
The new national drug strategy, “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery 2017–2025” recognises addiction as a health issue.
Graham Royal, an addiction counsellor who works in the drug-treatment programme at St Andrews in Rialto, says, when asked his thoughts on working with people with addiction issues: “I don’t work with drug users, I work with trauma and attachment issues.”
Society believes that using drugs, or stopping, comes down to just making a decision. I really wish it was that simple. But one thing we could do for people who have substance-abuse problems is to provide some harm-reduction services.
It was way back in 2012 that the Ana Liffey Drug Project launched its strategic plan for a supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre. This involved working with stakeholders on their concerns, and after nearly seven years of campaigning the project looked to be moving forward late last year.
Now Dublin City Council has asked MQI “to submit a detailed and comprehensive assessment that demonstrates that the proposed development will not result in over concentration of such facilities in the area and can operate without undermining the sustainability of the neighbourhood”.
The organisation is working with the local community to try to address their objections to the pilot project, said MQI spokesperson Andrew Rooney.
“We have invited members of the community to come view our proposal on how we will run the facility. In addition, we have outreach staff talking to the local business traders and community answering any queries and concerns they have,” he said.
Says Ana Liffey Drug Project CEO Tony Duffin: “It is important that Merchants Quay Ireland are supported to open a pilot Supervised Injecting Facility as soon as possible. I have no doubt that a well-run facility will be an asset to the neighbourhood and will reduce street-based injecting drug use in the immediate area.”
Dublin City Council said they are waiting for MQI to deliver information on how they will address the community objections.
The culture of shaming and blaming drug users hasn’t worked. What has been proven to work is accepting and treating drug use where it is at.
The proposed medically supervised injecting facility would give those who are marginalised the dignity and healthcare they deserve. It is facing opposition because of a lack of recognition that addiction is an illness, not a moral decision.