Have you ever seen a gaunt, sweaty soul open up his arm, and plunge a syringe deep into a collapsed vein?
It’s one of the most bleak and desperate acts you’ll ever see, and it happens all over Dublin city centre, every single day.
Dublin is unique from many other western European capitals. We don’t have what are known as ‘supervised injection centres’. Or in junky parlance, ‘shooting rooms.’
But this week, cabinet approved plans for ‘shooting rooms’ in our capital. However, the first supervised injection centre will not be opened in Dublin until late 2017.
The move, which is being pushed by Labour Minister for Drugs Aodhán Ó Ríordáin – but also supported by Fine Gael – is aimed at reducing drug deaths and infection from serious diseases caused by drug users sharing needles.
In Europe they call this harm reduction. They’ve been at it for years. They worked out that Joe Public doesn’t want to witness Joe Junky plunging a needle into his track-marked arm. And Joe Junky doesn’t want to run the risk of getting arrested – by plunging that needle into his scarred arm – out on the street.
So they came to a compromise. You could say everyone’s a winner. Joe Junky has a designated place to go – out of the public view – to get on with his grim business. And as a result, Joe Public isn’t exposed to bleak scenes of intravenous drug use on their city centre streets on a daily basis.
And then there’s the added incentive that drug-related deaths plummet, as there are paramedics on site in these injecting centres – in case of overdoses.
But can the plain people of Ireland tolerate such a liberal notion of supervised injection centres? Can we stomach the idea of ‘shooting rooms’?
Why should we provide rooms for junkies to inject their heroin without fear of recrimination? Why should we pay for addicts to remain safely addicted?
But if you have a problem with the concept of supervised injection centres, queue in any pharmacy and watch those same junkies gulp down their vials of state-sponsored, patriotically green methadone. 10,000 registered addicts receive the heroin substitute in the state. Who’s paying for that? You are.
So the Irish government is already the drug dealer, on a massive scale.
And that makes you the unwitting enabler in the junky’s grim life of an endless cycle of drug-abuse – whether that’s heroin itself, or the methadone you bought them. Or in most cases, both.
But this flawed tactic of using methadone as a maintenance-based alternative is just killing time. Abstinence-based recovery is the only viable option for addicts of any flavour.
There are an estimated 20,000 heroin addicts in Ireland; 13,000 in Dublin. Yet there are only 38 beds for heroin detox. So therefore it’s much easier for the government to hand them the vials of green medicine and keep them placidly addicted, rather than get down to the serious business of detox, and tackle the roots of the problem.
But it’s a complex issue. We are a nation of extremists. A nation of self-medicators. In no other European city exists such a proliferation of pharmacies, pubs and bookies. Try and find a pharmacy in any French, German or Dutch town and you’ve your work cut out. Throw a stone here and you can’t miss a chemist. No wonder we took to the heroin like ducks to water, when it was first introduced to Dublin by the scumbag Dunne family in the 1980’s.
So what’s the solution? For a different perspective, take a spin up the M1 to Belfast. The plague of sweaty zombies that float around O’Connell Street in Dublin are non-existent. Why?
Because heroin dealers get shot dead by paramilitaries – on both sides of the divide – for ‘crimes against the community.’ Addicts get punishment beatings or knee-cappings for ‘anti-social behaviour’. It’s vigilante justice, but it keeps the streets relatively free from heroin.
However, I can’t see Fine Gael going for this Northern-style approach. So the ‘shooting rooms’ it is then…
A prime example of how these supervised injection centres operate is Frankfurt. In Frankfurt 8,000 syringes are exchanged daily in these centres, which has dramatically decreased the prevalence of HIV among intravenous drug users in the past five years.
Ze Germans have come to the grim realisation that they can’t eradicate the problem. So they’ve made it safer for all concerned – civilian and junky alike. And while some people feel this progressive approach to the problem is only encouraging addiction, it certainly keeps the streets of Frankfurt free from dirty needles discarded by those pale-faced, sweaty zombies.
Needle exchange programs already operate in Dublin’s inner city. At the Merchant’s Quay Project there is a drop-in centre where drug users can exchange their needles, and receive medical care and obtain advice on safer drug use.
The centre receives over 200 visitors each day, and around 4,000 individual drug users a year. But there are 13,000 heroin addicts in Dublin alone. So the majority still don’t get any such help.
And of these 13,000 heroin addicts in Dublin, it is estimated that less than 20% of users who complete a treatment programme will remain drug-free for life afterwards. That’s a very depressing statistic.
While some would argue we bare no responsibility for these addicts, we certainly do have a responsibility for our civilians. Some people might call it admitting defeat; others might say it’s encouraging addiction. But adopting a European-style harm-reduction policy would at least mean our streets would be free from the fragile army of gaunt sweaty ghosts, hustling civilians for ‘spare change’ to get that ‘hostel’.
The problem is not going to go away. Heroin will always find it’s way to our streets. So Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is right. A more European, harm-reduction approach is needed.
It’s just a pity we’ve to wait another two years for it to happen.