‘We must distinguish between drug use and misuse’

SOCIETY needs to make a distinction between drug use and drug misuse and should consider the legal supply of drugs.

This call was made by veteran homelessness campaigner Fr Peter McVerry in a speech at a conference on drugs last night.

Fr McVerry said adults should take a “long and critical” look at their own drug use, namely alcohol and prescription drugs, such as valium.

“It is hypocritical to expect our young people to stay away from drugs, when we adults won’t,” he told the conference, organised by the Addiction Training Institute.

He said adults had fostered a culture of consumerism and individualism, which did not value young people for what they were and destroyed their sense of community. The Jesuit priest, who has worked with homeless young people for 30 years, said he had seen the “devastation” caused by illegal drugs, particularly heroin and cocaine.

“I spend much of my time helping young people to come off drugs. As a priest, I bury, on average, one young person a month who has died from a drug overdose, some of whom I would have been very close to.”

But he said there was a massive difference between drug user per se and drug misuse.

“I do it along the lines of alcohol. Many people use alcohol but it doesn’t have any dire consequence for themselves or for anybody else and people can use drugs without it having any dire consequences for themselves or anyone else, whereas the misuse of drugs is where drugs have consequences for oneself, one’s family or one’s community.”

He said 98% of those who experiment with drugs do not go on to misuse them.

“If you want to find out why young people take drugs, go into any pub any night of the week and ask the adults why they take alcohol. The reasons are the same. Adults would say we take alcohol in order to relax, as a focus for socialising, in order to escape from the pressures of life and to alter our moods. We take alcohol because we enjoy it. Young people take drugs for exactly the same reasons.”

He said Ireland’s response to illegal drugs has been a predominantly criminal justice approach, which he was “particularly inappropriate” for drug users, who should be helped by way of prevention and education.

He said criminal justice responses should be secondary in dealing with drug misusers, who should be first helped from a social and medical point of view.

Fr McVerry said public discussion of drugs was dominated by either a climate of fear or a moral climate.

“It would appear to me that the legalisation of drugs must be, at the very least, on our list of policy options to be discussed. If we accept that drugs are here to stay, as I think we must, then our priority ought to be ‘controlling the supply of drugs’.”

He said legalising drugs in the model of alcohol would be a “total disaster” and that their supply would have to be tightly controlled.

“We often forget — or are unaware — that we have already legalised one drug, methadone. Methadone is a highly dangerous drug and even more addictive than heroin.”

He said he appreciated that legalising, or controlling the supply of drugs, was politically unrealistic.


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