Thursday, 10 September 2020
Public Health, Well-being and National Drugs Strategy: Statements
Gary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Does the Minister of State remember his first truly political engagement? When I was walking today through the north inner city to get down here, I was reminiscing upon mine. It was about 2008, I was in first year in university and I was taking an interest in my community for the first time. I went to an incredible community leader named Fergus McCabe to tell him I would like to get more involved. He suggested I go on the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force. A great guy, he was a big help to me along the way. I went on to the task force in 2008 as a community representative. I sat around the table with the project workers, representatives from the HSE and politicians. The issues that were coming up in 2008 were an inability to access funds, a lack of recovery beds and a poor understanding of the connection between mental health, by which I mean trauma-informed mental ill health, and the reasons people get involved in addiction. Twelve years later, when I call around to the various drugs projects and talk to people involved in trying to hold back what is an epidemic that has been ongoing in my constituency and constituencies such as mine for the past 40 years, those are the exact same problems that are happening now, 12 years on from when I was on that drugs task force and probably 40 years on from when drugs first penetrated the north inner city, around the corner from here. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, yet here we are today talking about the same strategies that have failed. There is a lot in the national drugs strategy that is empathetic and meritorious, but three years into it what has really changed? What has changed for the service provider or the user? The issues are exactly the same.
I listened to the Minister of State's speech on public health and the national drugs strategy for 15 minutes. I cannot comprehend how a Minister of State with responsibility for these issues, in a statement lasting 15 minutes, did not mention the words "trauma" or "poverty". If we step away from those two issues and take them away from our understanding of the reasons people engage in this, we are doing those people a disservice, one that has been replicated for 40 years. The Minister of State talked about Healthy Ireland in his initial address. If he walks down the canal and talks to the poor people in the throes of addiction about Healthy Ireland, he might as well be speaking a different language. Those people have been impacted by trauma and that is what has them engaged in poisoning themselves in the manner in which other people have poisoned themselves in my constituency and constituencies such as mine for the past 40 years. Unless we address that in a real, practical, scientific, evidence-based, rational way that steps away from moralising, we will be back here again in 12 years' time talking about the exact same things. I want the Minister of State to do well - I really do - and I want to help him do well, but I will not sit here while we replicate the mistakes of the past and that is all that seems to be happening here.
What is the strategy? Is it once again to continue with this strange war on drugs? That will fail consistently. It always has and always will. Should we talk about another type of attrition that seems to happen whereby we falsely believe that if we can help enough people to recover, they will offset the fact that there is a conveyor belt of other people coming through? The Minister of State knows we are lying to ourselves about that. We do not have enough recovery beds for that policy to be successful. In addition, there is any number of people out there willing to engage in this destructive form of self-harm because the alternative is to live in trauma. If we do not address that, we are doing an incredible disservice to those people.
There is evidence of how we can stop people getting involved in this pursuit. There are models of prevention that work elsewhere. The fact that we are not yet adopting here in Ireland Portugal's model of decriminalisation and "healthcare first" is shocking. There is also the Icelandic model. Twenty years ago Iceland too had a problem with its young people getting engaged in drug addiction. Iceland responded by investing in opportunity for its young people. It provided them access to sport, culture and music. It has not only drastically reduced the number of its young people engaged in negative drug-taking behaviour, but also had offshoots of that in being successful in sport and culture, more than holding its own for a little nation. There is absolutely no reason we cannot do that, with the exception of one big reason: the moralising and the fear to embrace the fact that what we have been doing for 40 years is wrong. Until we address and accept that, until we accept the fact that it is wrong to criminalise a person who injects himself or herself with a poison or takes a poison because he or she is dealing with trauma, and until we step away from that, we will just keep replicating those mistakes. We are complicit in that, as is the State.
Generations of successive Ministers who have engaged with this issue have failed to a certain degree and until we accept the science and the reality we will continue failing. I want to help the Minister of State, but let us do this in a rational way. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past. Let us talk to the leaders in these communities. Let them devise the plan and let us invest in it. It will be costly but will be paid back twentyfold.