Let’s declare an opioid emergency - Mind-altering narcotics

It is common knowledge that Ireland has a problem with the over-consumption of alcohol. What may be so well known is that we also have a problem with mind-altering narcotics, in particular, cocaine, heroin and prescription painkillers.

Earlier this week, Garda chief superintendent Christy Mangan warned that the country is “loaded” with cocaine and the situation is getting worse. His assessment correlates with Garda figures released last February indicating a sharp rise in the quantity of cocaine being trafficked into the country, replicating trends across Europe.

Yesterday a chilling report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that opioid use, whether illegally or through prescription, is on the rise in a number of countries, including Ireland.

If you don’t know what an opioid is, count yourself lucky, certainly luckier than the thousands of Irish people who have found themselves addicted to a class of drugs that includes the illegal narcotic heroin, legally supplied substitute drugs such as methadone, and prescription painkillers.

The report examines how, over the past few years, the crisis has devastated families and communities, especially in the United States and Canada. 

The problem is particularly acute in the US where more than 183,000 citizens died from an overdose involving a prescription opioid between 1999 and 2015. However, the report also shows that deaths from opioid misuse are also rising sharply in Ireland, England and Wales as well as in Norway and Sweden.

The OECD figures are stark: Ireland is near the top of the table of 25 countries for opioid-related drug deaths and the crisis is worsening here.

This report is stark in its implications as opioid addiction is a chronic disease that can cause major health, social, and economic problems. We are all aware of the effect that addiction to illegal drugs like heroin has on those affected.

It would be a mistake to see drug addiction in terms of the sad figures we may encounter on the streets of our cities. It is also present in many homes and affects thousands of ordinary people who become addicted to prescription drugs after taking them not for a high but to relieve pain. 

Opioids can be effective for managing acute pain but long-term and high dose use can lead to addiction and death.

The OECD says opioid over-prescribing by doctors is considered one of the most important root causes of the crisis. 

It also takes the pharmaceutical industry to task, saying that “the influence of pharmaceutical manufacturers on pain management has been considered significant, by conducting marketing campaigns targeted mainly at physicians and patients, downplaying the problematic effect of opioids”.

It is just over a week since Ireland became the second country, after the UK, to declare a climate emergency. The Taoiseach described the Dáil motion to that effect as symbolic and a gesture. 

What would be equally fitting would be to declare an opioid epidemic as a public health emergency and ensure that such a declaration is more than symbolic by putting in place public health measures to stem the tide.

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