All nine former Government ministers who have held responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy want the Taoiseach to intervene to restore confidence in its partnership framework and funding to its neighbourhood activities.
They say that the strategy, which has been in place since 1996, is in danger of collapse partly because of funding cuts made to the service since the financial crisis in 2008.
But it is not just the lack of funding that threatens to destroy the strategy.
The Government has allowed decision-making authority to be taken from national, regional, and local level and centralised again in the Department of Health and the HSE, neither of which are consulting local communities.
One of those nine ministers is former Labour Party leader Pat Rabitte. In 1996, during his tenure as a junior minister, he helped establish the anti-drugs strategy so any comments he makes on its trajectory need to be taken seriously. He has said: “Community participation and interagency working is crucial to an effective response to an increasingly complex and challenging drugs problem.”
Indeed, one of the strategic goals of the strategy is to ‘support the participation of individuals, families, and communities’ which is why every successive government up to now has reaffirmed the National Drugs Strategy’s partnership approach.
“At national, regional, and local level, decision-making authority is being taken away from the strategy’s partnership structures, and is reverting to the Department ofHealth and the HSE, who now make the key decisions centrally and without consultation with communities,” says Mr Rabbitte.
Two years ago, the strategy was reinvigorated, with a move away from a punishment approach to one of harm reduction and care. The Government set out a pathway for local drugs task forces to play a key part in decision-making, with an emphasis on community care.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launched the new approach,Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery — a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025.
He said the strategy recognised “the importance of supporting the participation of communities in key decision-making structures, so that their experience and knowledge informs the development of solutions to solve problems related to substance misuse in their areas”. His words ring hollow now.
It is important to note that illegal drug use is a national problem, not just an urban one, while the latest Health Research Board’s newsletter shows cocaine use has now “returned to Celtic Tiger levels in Ireland” and is evident among rural communities. From Letterkenny in Donegal to Cahersiveen in Kerry, along with hundreds of towns and villages in between, drug misuse is now a feature of rural life.
It is also a community problem that only communities can tackle effectively. A centralised, bureaucratic, top-down approach from Dublin will never work.