Minister calls for injection rooms for addicts

Heroin addicts should be allowed to legally inject their drug in a medically supervised setting, drugs minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said.

The minister of state said he hoped to change the drug laws by the end of the year —marking a radical departure in government policy.

He accepted there was “some convincing to be done”, including within Government, but said he was “quite sure” both Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald would be open to considering it.

The announcement, made at a conference yesterday, was described as “brave and bold” by the Ana Liffey Drug Project which has been lobbying for such a move over the past three years.

Given responsibility for the drugs strategy only two weeks ago, the junior minister has already attracted publicity over suggestions the decriminalisation of cannabis will be discussed as part of the forthcoming Misuse of Drugs Bill.

Mr Ó Ríordáin, who has other responsibilities in the departments of justice, health and arts, was speaking at a Better City For All conference in Dublin, aimed at dealing with public drug taking and dealing, and rough sleeping in the city centre. He told the conference that “instinctively” he didn’t see why medically supervised injecting centres “should be a big issue” and “if there is a legal problem with that, let’s fix it”.

Speaking to media afterwards, he said: “I think, having people injecting in side alleys, in unsupervised fashion, is not good for the addict, it’s not good for the city, it’s not good for anybody. So, I don’t think it is too much of an ask to find legislative ways of changing that. If we truly believe this is a medical problem, a medical need, why don’t we afford the individual the dignity they deserve to deal with their medical issue in a medically supervised fashion. That may be a bit of a leap for some people to take, but I don’t think necessarily we should be overly concerned about. How we manage it, how we supervise it, how we implement it, that’s a lot of questions we still need to work around.”

Asked would ministers Varadkar and Fitzgerald be open to the proposal, he said: “I’m quite sure they will be. Who agrees with open heroin use on the streets of Dublin? I don’t think anybody does. There will be a question mark over ‘are you legitimising heroin use?’ I can understand those concerns.”

He said one possibility would be to have a “mobile facility” which would negate the need, and controversies, of having it in a fixed location. He said he had nine months “max” to work on this area, before the election, and hoped that, with the cooperation of Oireachtas health and justice committees and opposition parties, to have the Misuse of Drugs Bill published by the “latter end” of the year.

Ana Liffey’s Tony Duffin said: “I think the minister of state considering this is a brave and bold step. I hope the minister for health and the minister for justice support it. I know both of them have a good understanding of the issues.” He said the Bar Council was drafting legislation for Ana Liffey, which would outline how the law could be changed for the injecting centre.

In 2005, the Government’s drugs advisory body recommended injecting rooms be considered, particularly for homeless heroin users. It said the facilities might allow more hygienic practices and reduce overdoses.

A 2010 report by the European drugs agency said consumption rooms improved drug users’ access to health and social care and reduced public drug use. It said there were over 90 such rooms across the world, including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany.

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