Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy said the actual enforcement of the law around the centre will be a “learning curve” but noted that it will involve the same use of discretion that gardaí have always practised.
Speaking at the Dublin City Council joint policing committee, the head of Dublin Metropolitan Region said “policing never cured drug addiction” and that anything that “saved lives is a plus”.
He was commenting at a debate in the committee on the proposed medically supervised injected facility (MSIF), which received a presentation from the head of HSE addiction services Dr Eamon Keenan.
The consultant psychiatrist told councillors that the “bottom line” is that MSIF saves lives of the most marginalised, homeless injectors and that the facility will be cost-effective. Based on North American estimates, the €2.8m being spent by the HSE on the facility will recoup €5.47m in savings.
The Department of Health awarded the contract for a pilot centre in Dublin city centre to Merchants Quay Ireland, which will now have to seek planning permission from Dublin City Council. This could be appealed to An Bórd Pleanála.
Mr Leahy said he has spent most of his career in the north and south inner city and has “seen the squats”. He said the issue is fundamentally a “health and humanitarian” one.
A number of councillors had questions about the law, with Ciaran Perry saying the centre will create a “legal grey area” that will be Achilles heel of the project.
Strongly opposed to the facility, he said it is unfair to have gardaí make the call on if the possession of heroin was legal or illegal.
Mr Leahy said when it comes to it, gardaí are “going to have to use discretion”, which he said is nothing new to them.
He said they would have to apply human rights principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.
“It is necessary to intervene in the context they are in, is it proportionate to the circumstances, in terms of proximity and Government policy,” he said.
The commissioner admitted it is going to be “a learning curve”. He added: “Policing never cured drug addiction, that’s for sure.”
He said that from a policing perspective the gardaí are supporting the measure, not just because it is government policy but because “we feel it is the right thing to do”.
He said they can’t stop and search everyone and need a reasonable suspicion. He said that would involve surveillance to identify the actual dealers, not the actual users, which he said is always the case.
“We have to look at the reality: people are dying,” he said.
Dr Keenan said the evaluations of such facilities abroad show they have both public health and public order benefits.
He said these include reduced public injecting, increased rate of referral to other services, fewer syringes being discarded locally, no evidence of any change to crime patterns, increased hygiene and safer use of drugs and lower drug deaths.
He said that all of the 93 users they have surveyed said they would want a brief intervention when they attended the centre.
Councillor Mannix Flynn strenuously objected to the facility, saying he is “surprised” at Commissioner Leahy’s views saying it sends out a “bad signal”. He said he would fight the facility “tooth and nail”, including in every court in the land.
JPC chairman Cllr Daithí Doolan backed the facility as did Cllr Gary Gannon and Cllr Ray McAdam, while Cllr Larry O’Toole offered qualified support.