Taoiseach urged to ensure citizens' assembly on drugs takes place next year 

Taoiseach urged to ensure citizens' assembly on drugs takes place next year 

Fergus McCabe was the lead community drug representative for decades on a range of national structures dealing with the drugs crisis.

Community drugs organisations are calling on the Taoiseach to ensure the promised citizens’ assembly on drugs takes place next year and that it mends the broken partnership between the State and communities.

Micheál Martin is due to address a webinar on Thursday morning organised by CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign.

The event is in memory of Fergus McCabe, a drug activist and youth worker for more than 30 years and community representative on State drug bodies.

CityWide coordinator Anna Quigley said following the State’s intervention in the drugs crisis in 1996 – with the establishment of the ministerial taskforce, led by Labour TD Pat Rabbitte – there were many successes, not least the partnership structures to deal with the drug crisis in all its aspects.

But she said the overall trends over the past 25 years “have not been good” and said a CityWide analysis of official figures previously published showed:

  • Drug deaths have increased by 225% since 1996 – and that, by comparison, road deaths over that period road deaths reduced by 68%;
  • In 1996, there were 4,858 people in treatment, with the latest figures showing 9,702 people in treatment – almost double the rate;
  • The number of people prosecuted for possession of drugs for personal use has increased by 484% over the last 25 years with more than quarter of a million recorded crimes for possession of drugs for personal use;
  • While the use of opiates and ecstasy has declined over the period (by 7% and 88% respectively) all other drugs have seen massive increases in usage, with cocaine use rising by 10,376%, benzodiazepines by 824% and cannabis by 263%.

Ms Quigley said the National Drugs Strategy (NDS) has to return to the former model based on listening to community voices and responding to community needs, including addressing underlying issues of poverty and inequality.

“We know how to do this,” she said. 

“For years we had a model that worked and it delivered a significant number of vital community services that to this day are improving the lives of people who use drugs, their families and the wider community.” 

She said in 2011 the responsibility for the NDS transferred from the Department of Community Affairs to the Department of Health.

She said while the emphasis on a health-led approach was welcome, the implementation of the current strategy had moved away from a social inclusion approach.

“This has resulted, over time, in a weakening of the interagency partnership but also, and most significantly, has worn away at the genuine community engagement that was an outstanding feature of previous strategies,” Ms Quigley said.

She said the main focus of local and regional drug and alcohol taskforces is now on “delivering HSE actions” and that key decisions on taskforce funding are made within the HSE.

She said community representatives on the taskforces “feel they are no longer equal partners and are being asked to rubber stamp HSE decisions”.

She said the citizens’ assembly on drugs – promised under the programme for government – needs to "herald a return" to community-based partnership.

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