Drugs strategy will need cash — and commitment — to work

There are reasons to the hopeful with the new national drugs strategy. But, there are also reasons to be concerned, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

Drugs strategy will need cash — and commitment — to work

First, the plus side.

It starts with the title. It’s not even called the National Drugs Strategy 2017-2025, like its predecessors.

It’s now called “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery — a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025”.

OK, it’s a mouthful. But it does capture the shift in focus: from the criminal justice approach to a health one.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Health Minister Simon Harris and Drugs Strategy Minister Catherine Byrne all emphasised how the health and social needs of the addict — as well as those of families and communities — went to the core of the strategy.

Part of this is the establishment of a high-level group to examine the issue of decriminalisation of the possession of drugs. This would have been unimaginable even five years ago. It’s part of a shift that has seen the introduction of legislation for supervised injecting centres — also part of this strategy.

These moves are the result of trends here and abroad. Here, due to the work of former drugs strategy minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the previous Oireachtas justice committee and the decriminalisation campaign by Citywide, representing community drug projects, and the National Family Support Network.

There are other positives in the report: Not least the formal inclusion of families and users in the national drug structures.

Community workers respect Ms Byrne as someone committed to tackling drugs and helping communities. That is a big plus.

There are also actions on mental health and addiction, on addiction and pregnancy, on expanding residential services, including for young people, and an overdose strategy.

There are actions (albeit vague) on the urgent issue of drug-related intimidation and community impact statements.

However, there are also concerns.

The strategy has inaugurated 10 further examinations: Three working groups, four evaluations and three “considerations”.

Moreover, while there are many actions, there are few, if any, targets or timelines.

Many of the actions are vague and general and one would fear — as many community representatives did yesterday — about the implementation of them.

References to resources are thin on the ground — and without money, many of the actions will not happen.

Some key actions are very old ones, such as the references to national rehabilitation structures and a national overdose strategy.

There is a lack of detail on the role and needs of law enforcement agencies.

Given all the talk about building up the resilience of communities, there is no mention of the need to build up community policing, and a lack of detail on developing structured linkages to local groups and young people.

Ms Byrne told community activists she was willing to put her “neck on the line” regarding implementation of the strategy. It’s a bold move, and not to be sneered at.

The issue is getting ministers and state agencies and departments around her to adopt the same attitude.

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