Ireland’s drug addiction crisis is out of control: The desperate need for policy reform

May 26, 2024
various drugs on a table

Photo: Blueshot, Getty Images.

Of all the national crises Ireland continues to brush under the rug, drug addiction may arguably be amongst the worst. It’s easier to turn a blind eye to the countless people stumbling through the city centre, to the rise in street crime figures and to a steadily increasing death toll, than it is to actually tackle any of it. With ignorance, however, comes a cost – and Ireland is already starting to pay it.

 Most people remain unaware of just how bad the crisis has grown, because it gets so little widespread media coverage. When you delve into the statistics, however, the reality is pretty grim.

A joint report published every four years by the Health Research Board (HRB) in Ireland, and the Public Health Information and Research Branch (PHIRB) of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has highlighted a significant increase in illegal drug use and associated deaths between 2002 and 2020.

Between 2004 and 2020 alone, the number of drug related deaths in Ireland reached a total of 11,086. According to CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, “the annual number of deaths increased by 87% during this period, from 431 in 2004 to 806 in 2020”.

The most popular illicit substances in Ireland right now are heroin and cocaine, with 2020’s study finding that cocaine use in particular had increased across all age groups. 

As one can imagine, in the midst of all of this, crime statistics are only climbing. According to the CSO report from 2023, there were 17,683 recorded cases of controlled drug offences. This is a steady increase from the year before, where that figure was 16,712.

For the individual, drug abuse poses a number of potential health problems, from picking up and spreading infection such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, to overdosing or dying. But on a broader scale, CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign reports that communities with high levels of deprivation are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of drug use activities in their local area.

The conservative, archaic approach that our country so firmly stands by – continuing to stigmatise, push prohibition, and punish addicts – simply isn’t working. At a certain point, this stops becoming an opinion; the figures and the dire state of the country render it fact. But what is the alternative? Scary, for a lot of people, and at first glance, understandably so.

Many see the prospect of decriminalising illegal substances, or opening safe injection centres as entirely radical. Those who are pro-prohibition generally echo the same sentiments: why stop penalising people who are ruining their own lives and causing harm in the streets? Why would you open centres that distribute or provide a space for the very thing you’re trying to permanently eradicate? These are entirely reasonable questions. But they’re overly simple questions for an issue that is much more complex. To start, addiction is a disease, not a choice, and certainly not a crime. But more importantly, implementing such measures actually works, and the evidence exists to prove it.

In a perfect world, we’d just end addiction entirely. But we do not live in a perfect world. So, instead, it’s about trying to reduce it where we can, help addicts function in society, and minimise the damage that comes with it all – from infection, to dirty streets, to street crime.

One of the most referenced examples of drug policy reform being a major success is Portugal and it is so widely referenced for good reason. The numbers speak for themselves. But beyond the numbers, is the impact it has had on real, everyday people, who have managed to slowly get their lives back.

Portugal was previously known for having one of the biggest drug addiction crises in the world, with Lisbon being titled “the heroin capital of Europe”. As the issue continued to snowball, and the approach that was in place at the time simply wasn’t yielding any results, the country decided in 2001 to introduce a few significant changes. 

These included entirely reframing the narrative around addiction (thus initiating the process of humanising addicts and providing them with a sense of belonging and agency), decriminalisation of personal possession – instead of arresting those found with drugs, they were at most given a small fine and then redirected to medical and employment resources that could aid them in their recovery and reintegration back into the world, the provision of care to addicts on the streets (including clean syringe exchange and methadone treatment) and public education that was aimed at everyone, especially the addicts themselves.

blurry street photo

Drug dealers in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Mark Hillary, Flickr.

The results? Addiction and all the associated negative effects, plummeted. The number of heroin addicts in Portugal dropped from 100,000 to 25,000 by just 2018. The country also had the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe. HIV cases contracted through drug use injections declined by 90%. Total societal cost savings (e.g., health costs, legal costs, lost individual income) came to 12% and then to 18%.

In the name of transparency, it's important to note that some have criticised the country for not maintaining these low numbers since then, which ultimately highlights the importance of dealing with the issue from its roots. As Portugal encountered multiple economic crises, funding for essential support groups and mental health services was steeply cut. This brings to our attention the significance of helping an addict through every stage, from prevention, to destigmatisation, to recovery, and not depriving them of the necessary aids throughout this journey.

One would think such positive results would inspire a similar change worldwide, but Ireland, amongst many other countries, has yet to take that leap – or in fact, even a step, in the right direction.

A recent public meeting on the topic, ran by People Before Profit, titled “After the Citizen’s Assembly, What’s Next for Ireland’s Drug Policy?” saw TD Gino Kenny along with a panel of experts express their frustration with the country’s current attitude towards the issue, and just how crucial it is that we start to turn things around.

Amongst this panel was Dr Garrett McGovern, a GP and addiction specialist, who pointed out how unnecessary and unhelpful our current “stop and search” procedures are, saying “to this day, I’ve never understood stop and search. The “good” people don’t get stopped and searched, only the “ropey” people in the eyes of the guards”. Cian Ó Concubhair, Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice, Maynooth, was in agreement, also noting that you may be racially targeted and won’t be able to prove it. Getting arrested for drug possession leaves a permanent dent in your record, and can have serious effects on your future. Eddie D’Arcy (Youth Workers Against Prohibition) brought to light how many young people are groomed into drugs and are never taught any better. He also added that drugs will always be there, it’s about getting rid of “the black mark”.

Everyone concluded that decriminalisation is the first step, and the only way to destigmatize the disease. The end goal remains simple: policy reform will reduce harm, investing in medical and support services will help to treat and prevent addiction in the first place. Gino Kenny referenced the bill he had recently proposed to the Dáil about decriminalising cannabis, which has been postponed, and the long-promised safe injection centre that’s set to be built along the quays but has not come into fruition. The bottom line being that the government is using all the right words, but ultimately keep kicking the can down the road.

At the end of the day, these are real people, who have often been through immense trauma, and they deserve support. Regardless of how one believes the issue should be addressed, one thing is evident: we need to continue to talk about it, and we need to see change. Attempting to crack down on already ineffective laws will never produce any real, tangible results. As evidenced above, there are solutions out there, and it shouldn’t take thousands more to suffer, or die, for the Irish government to start implementing them.