Harm Reduction: A New Frontier for Irish Society

Hassan Baker speaks with Tim Bingham and TD Aodhan O’Riordain about the National Student Drug Survey and the issues surrounding drug law reform in Ireland.

A big part of student life is trying new things, and experiencing them in a safe and open environment. Hence why drug use is, and always will be, prevalent in student culture.

This makes it neither right nor wrong, but does raise certain questions. These are questions which researcher Tim Bingham sought to find answers to in the National Student Drug Survey; the largest survey of its kind that had been done on third level students.

One of his reasons for carrying out this research is to help colleges further understand their drug culture, so students can at least be safe. “That’s one reason why we did this study, it was to help promote it among student councils and any policies, strategies or campaigns they want to implement.”

The Facts and the Figures

“The top three in the last 12 months were alcohol, cannabis, and ecstasy. Again, it’s replicating what we have in the UK, people are definitely going back to the more traditional substances, like cannabis and MDMA.”

The headline figure of this research is that 82% of students have ever tried drugs, not to be mistaken as 82% of all students are taking drugs. Apart from this figure, Bingham expanded on some of the other interesting trends that appear in this research, stating that: “98% of respondents have ever used an alcoholic drink as well, but I suppose one of the things that really came out is that 35% of the respondents have reported having 6 or more drinks on one occasion on a weekly basis.”

“I know we’re talking about a student population, but even so, that is quite high, in regards to alcohol use,” he added.

Another interesting result is that 49% have consumed normal strength cannabis, while 44% have consumed high strength cannabis, such as resin or other concentrated forms, leading Bingham to assume that students prefer medium strength cannabis.

“This again replicates what we see in the UK studies, people don’t want to get that real buzz effect from the weed, they want more normal strength weed. I suppose this feeds into the whole area of synthetics, where we definitely saw a reduction, in this cohort of people.”

The research found that students are more likely to steer away from drugs because of the health risks, rather than the legality. However, the current trend in drug use does offer many health risks, which Bingham pointed out.

“Alcohol is normalized in the Irish population, yet we see one or two deaths every week due to alcohol use. We wouldn’t generally see that number of deaths from MDMA, or cannabis. So that’s why it would become normalized. Back in the 80s, when people are taking MDMA, a lot of people would just be drinking water, but now people are combining alcohol and MDMA together, again, this is where some of the problems are rising for people.”

Time for Change: Injecting centers and decriminalisation

The Minister of State, TD Aodhan O’Riordain, has started pushing for a new, somewhat controversial though arguably progressive, drug policy. He has been trying to bring a medically supervised injecting centre to Dublin for heroin users to inject in a safe environment. With the intent of getting cabinet approval for a new heads of bill on that this month, it would be part of the Misuse of Drugs Bill that will go in front of the Oireachtas next year.
O’Riordain had this to say: “Effectively we have a level of heroin use in the open; down alley ways, street corners, stairways of flat complexes, parks and playgrounds at the moment. Very unsafe for the drug user, very unsafe in terms of contracting HIV, or Hepatitis C. What we want is for those very vulnerable people, who are outside of mainstream drug services to be allowed to use the facility, medically supervised, to inject in a safer way, as a pathway to recovery. It will have to be regulated very carefully, it would have to be policed.”

When questioned about how the injecting centres would be policed, he said: “we’ll take the international practice from Sydney and from different centres around Europe.”
The results in Sydney have been outstanding to say the least. The Australian reports that in April 2010, 3,500 had overdosed on the premises without a single fatality. Ambulance call-outs to the area had dropped by 80%, and the number of syringes left on the street had more than halved. If following this system could offer similar results in Ireland, then there is no reason it shouldn’t be tried. The Minister’s vision for Ireland is “that we will have one centre, and then learning from that and how it’s managed, will educate us as to how future centres might be managed.”
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This is not the only step the Minister is taking to fight the drug problem in Ireland. He is trying to bring the idea of decriminalisation to public discussion.
“This won’t happen in the lifetime of this government, but I’m also trying to talk about the decriminalisation of the individual, who has been caught in the possession of drugs for their own personal use, along the Portuguese lines. So it’s a harm reduction model, it means that we have the human impact of being criminalised, for having a criminal conviction for something that’s medical, or having something that is a need or an addiction.”

The Minister spoke about how that the criminalisation of drug use is not just a legality issue, but also an inequality issue. There is a higher percentage of minorities with criminal records for non-violent drug offences or suffering from drug addiction.
“None of these measures are the solution; there is no one solution, there’s overlapping issues here of homelessness, of education disadvantage, of mental health issues, of substance abuse issues, there are a lot of overlapping problems here, it’s not in any way the only approach.”

I asked him whether this was a way of combatting homelessness, or if there is something else in the works all together. He stated that it is one approach that has to be part “of a whole cohort of approaches.”
Tim Bingham’s believes this policy proposed by O’Riordain is a positive step. “I think decriminalisation of anybody that uses a substance is important,” says Bingham. “I’m sure that there is a whole cohort of people that don’t access services, because it is not being counted as a health matter, it is being regarded as a criminal justice matter.”
However, he did propose one effective method on cutting down the illegal distribution of cannabis; “I suppose I would have liked the debate to open up around the possession of one or two cannabis plants grown at home, because as much the decriminalization argument really works and is necessary, it doesn’t necessarily stop the dealing going on. I think that there would be a significant impact on the cannabis market if people were allowed to grow their own cannabis, like say one or two plants of their own personal use.”

Controversy in Cork

The discussion where I met with Aodhan O’Riordain, held by Help Not Harm in Cork on the 10th of November, seemed to be filled with controversy. During the Q&A, two very brave women spoke out about the topic of Medical Marijuana. One woman was a mother of a fatally ill child, who’s best chances reside in medical marijuana, and another whose mother suffers from dementia and refused to eat for days, and would have died if the woman had not taken her mother home and given her illegal cannabis to smoke, which ultimately led to her eating and feeling more at ease.

The woman whose child is sick said that she and her family are moving to Colorado to treat her son, and questioned the minister as to why the state has not looked into medical marijuana, and how the state can help her and her family on their journey to Colorado, and whether they can ever come back to Ireland to receive an effective form of healthcare for her child.

The Minister barely had any response. He could not offer any intensive answers, but was honest in his reply. He mentioned that medical marijuana has nothing to do with his policy, and that he is not educated enough on the matter to speak about it, and that more research needs to be done on the issue. He also added that he is not pro-legalizing drugs, or even decriminalizing them; this policy reform would decriminalize the individual. All and all, he offered no useful answers for any medical marijuana questions, and admitted he has not read any of the research done on it, which is remarkable, seeing as he is currently the face of drug policy reform in Irish politics.

This was not taken lightly by those who attended the discussion. One person asked him how he can be against legalizing cannabis when cannabis has never killed a person, but we let alcohol kill nearly two people a week. The Minister explained that alcohol regulations are increasing rather than decreasing, and they don’t want to add another drug in the market for recreational use. There was more outrage and one person even accused him of being puritanical.

In response to this, one of the questions I had for O’Riordain was why the current government refuses to be educated on policies such as drug policy and regulation, and rather than discuss it, avoid it at all costs. His answer was an honest one again; the government basically doesn’t agree with the public, it is not a populist discussion.
I asked Tim Bingham the same question, and his answer was pretty much the same, but a bit more extensive; “It’s not a populist thing to do, in the general population per say. However I think that students are having a voice, and students are getting on board with having a voice.”

He went on to say that the Garda Commissioner came out and welcomed the debate, and that there is talk of saving 69,000 hours of Garda time.

“I think when people talk about decriminalisation, people think decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs is the same, and it’s not. And again that hasn’t really been said. It hasn’t really been out there in the media,” he added.
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This backs up TD Aodhán O’Ríordáin’s point on how the public views decriminalisation: “You see, it is interesting, because as soon as you talk about decriminalisation – it took me a while to get my head around it myself when it was first presented to me – and when you raise it in public discourse it does get mixed up with the term legalisation, so that’s why in this room people were frustrated that we haven’t gone further towards legalising cannabis or whatever, and that’s fine, but in terms of bringing this debate into the mainstream, which I’m attempting to do, and I think I’ve been reasonably successful at it.”

There is no question about it, the discussion has started. Whether this harm reduction model can be perceived as progressive or not, it has opened the debate on decriminalisation, health services, medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, and a whole cohort of controversial topics that politicians are too used to avoiding. So how should we as students approach politicians about these concerns? The Minister suggested sending letters to our local TDs, and preferably as a group, as numbers raise the seriousness of the matter.

All and all, there is unavoidably an onslaught of change happening in Irish politics; first the Marriage Equality Referendum, now the proposal of medically supervised injecting centre and discussion on decriminalisation, not to mention a push for a referendum on the 8th amendment; all food for thought for the General Election, in which students must have their voices heard.