'The issue is at epidemic proportions': Call for urgent action on Irish drugs crisis

'The issue is at epidemic proportions': Call for urgent action on Irish drugs crisis

A group comprising every former Drugs Minister in the State has called for urgent action on the drugs crisis in Ireland, citing the situation as being “at epidemic proportions”.

The grouping representing nine former office holders met in Dublin to promote their joint statement calling for the Government to “restore confidence” in the National Drugs Strategy, which has been in place in varying formats since 1996, in order to avert its collapse.

The goal for the statement was twofold - to convince the Taoiseach to appoint one of his own senior officials to the National Oversight Committee of the national strategy, and for funding for the 20 drugs and alcohol task forces spread around the country to be restored to their pre-recession levels.

The national budget for those task forces has been static at €28m since 2015, despite the evolution of the drugs problem nationwide and a ballooning health budget overall. One worker on the ground, Tim Murphy from the Cavan Monaghan Drug Alcohol Service, said his own project is set to shut by end 2020 due to lack of resources.

“We may be the first but we won’t be the last,” he said.

“The strategy, if you read it, it doesn’t seem to apply to the Ireland I know. Its mandate is not being delivered upon, and I don’t think the Government is cognisant of the impact of that failure on criminal justice in the country.”

Labour Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin described the coming together of ministers from three separate political parties as being an “unprecedented” event, one necessitated by the “life or death issue” facing the Irish State.

“We have the third-highest overdose rate in the EU,” he said.

“What is clear is that the people who are dying are not important enough to this Government.”

Those sentiments were the most heavily politicised expressed on the day. The other former ministers present shied away from such criticism, particularly of current Drugs Minister Catherine Byrne, preferring to focus on the structural problem facing the National Drug Strategy, the most recent update of which was released two years ago.

Common to all present was the criticism laid at the door of the Department of Health and the HSE - that rather than a partnership approach between affected communities and the State, the strategy has become subsumed into a HSE-led project.

Coordinator of drugs crisis campaign Citywide - which organised the event at Buswell’s Hotel next to Dáil Éireann - Anna Quigley, said that the joint statement by the nine former ministers had already had one tangible effect: “We got a response from the Department, something which is very hard to do”.

Yesterday Minister Byrne declared herself “committed to implementing an integrated public health response to substance misuse”.

“Working in partnership with statutory, community and voluntary sectors is central to this response,” she said.

Róisín Shortall, the former minister and current Social Democrats TD, told the gathering that securing representation from Leo Varadkar on the oversight committee would be key to bringing the drugs strategy back from the brink. “If it matters to the Taoiseach then it will matter to everyone else,” she said. “This isn’t being driven at a senior level and it has to be.”

Pat Carey, the former Fianna Fáil minister, said: “Catherine Byrne is working tremendously hard but she doesn’t have enough money. Something has to be done because the issue is at epidemic proportions across the country at this stage."

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