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Speech by An Taoiseach Mr Leo Varadkar TD to launch Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery – A health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025

 

In 2014 - the most recent year that we have figures for - there were 697 drug-related deaths in this country.

Three-quarters were male and half were under the age of 40.
That’s more than three times the number of road fatalities in the same period.

It’s more than twelve times the number of recorded murders.
Every avoidable death is a tragedy.
In the same way that we developed a Road Safety Strategy looking to 2020 to reduce fatalities and serious injuries, and put in place a Crime Prevention & Reduction Strategy to better protect our citizens, we need to approach the problem of drugs in an integrated way.
This government’s strategy is to take a public health led approach to the problem.

Republic of Opportunity
If the ideal of a Republic of Opportunity is to be meaningful, then it must meaningfully apply to all.

In a Republic of Opportunity the person suffering from substance abuse is not marginalised, or ostracised, or blamed and then forgotten. He or she is given a second chance and they are helped recover.
So, treating substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health challenge, rather than a criminal justice matter, helps individuals, helps families, and helps communities. It reduces crime because it rebuilds lives. So it benefits all of us.

Strategy
So I am delighted to be here today in Dublin Castle for the launch of Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery – a health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017 – 2025.
This strategy is a new departure for Ireland’s policy on drugs. It reflects a change in attitudes and policy on substance misuse. It promotes a more compassionate and humane approach to people who use drugs, with addiction treated first and foremost as a health issue.
The new strategy maps out a series of integrated actions and holistic interventions up to 2020. The development of a new action plan from 2021 to 2025 will ensure the continued relevance of the strategy until the end of its term.

Trends
Trends over the past decade point to an increase in the rate of drug use, with the greatest increases in drug use among young people.
Using substances at a young age increases the likelihood of developing problems with alcohol and drugs later in life.
Children living with parental substance use are more likely to experience mental health problems and may be more prone to developing substance misuse problems themselves later in life.
While we are seeing a welcome decrease in the number of heroin users entering treatment, Ireland remains a country with a relatively large heroin problem.

The high rates of alcohol consumption and high prevalence of harmful drinking in our society is also a serious cause of concern.

The vision of Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery is for a healthier and safer Ireland. The goals of the strategy are to reduce the damage caused to individuals, families and communities by substance use, and ensure that everyone is empowered to improve their health and wellbeing and quality of life.

The Healthy Ireland Framework is the foundation for the new strategy, and the basis for a health led approach to substance misuse. Healthy Ireland recognises that a healthy population is a major asset for society and is essential to allow people to live their lives to their full potential.
We recognise that there is no “one size that fits all”. Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery employs a range of different strategies to help individuals, families and communities. Early intervention, education and prevention are critical. We know that harm reduction approaches will meet the health needs of high risk drug users. Equity of access to treatment at the right time will be at the heart of this strategy.

An integrated public health response to drug and alcohol use involves all sectors of society working collectively. We recognise the role that carers, families and peers can play in promoting protective and healthy behaviour among young people. By making positive changes to our own lifestyles, we can provide positive role models for those around us.

There are many reasons why people develop problems with drug and alcohol. Early school leaving, parental neglect, genetics, mental health issues and homelessness can undermine resilience and increase the risk of addiction.

Some communities still bear the brunt of the drug problem.
The concentration of illegal drug markets in particular areas means that already marginalized communities must also deal with social and public disorder, and property crime associated with the sale and distribution of drugs. The use of violence and the threat of violence can create an atmosphere of fear in these communities.

Dealing with poverty, deprivation and inequality and reducing social exclusion will be necessary in order to improve the quality of life for communities across the country.

At the same time, An Garda Síochána will continue to promote community policing to enhance trust and confidence with communities and ensure a visible, accessible and responsive service to protect communities from crime.

Changing Attitudes
In the past, Irish people often had a cold view on social issues. We often lacked empathy for people who became dependent on drugs or alcohol as though it could not happen to people like us. So we did not have to admit it was happening to people just like us all over the place. Our hardened attitudes only served to further isolate and stigmatise people with drug problems.
There were exceptions. Almost twenty years ago An Cosán was founded and it set-out a vision for empowering through education, with pioneering work on addiction and community development. I applaud the work of now Minister, Katherine Zappone, and the late - and much missed - Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan. The spirit of that work is in this strategy. I am glad to see Senator Lynn Ruane here, someone who has shown a passionate determination to change attitudes concerning addiction and drug use.
In the development of this new strategy, there was a public debate on attitudes to addiction, started by Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordán while Minister and continued by Minister Byrne when she took office. I congratulate them both.

The community and voluntary sector and Drug and Alcohol Task Forces have also participated actively in the debate and have played a key role in challenging harsh attitudes to people with addiction issues.

I firmly believe we should do all we can to remove obstacles to rehabilitation and barriers that prevent people from changing.

So, I welcome the commitment in the strategy to set up a Working Group to examine the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to dealing with simple possession offences.
I would like to thank Minister Harris for supporting the development of the strategy and wish Minister Byrne the very best in the implementation phase.

I would also like to thank John Carr for chairing the National Drugs Strategy Steering Committee, and also each of the Focus Groups.
He deserves enormous credit for his dedication and commitment.

This government wants to help achieve a Republic of Opportunity that is not a slogan but rather something tangible and meaningful in people’s lives.

That means empowering people who have not had the same opportunities.

This strategy is a very good place to begin.

Thank You.

ENDS