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27 July 2000 Edition

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Need for grassroots debate on drugs

By MICHAEL PIERSE

The National Chairperson of Ireland's biggest anti-drugs organisation, the Coalition of Communities Against Drugs (COCAD), has called for a widespread debate about drugs policy in Ireland.

André Lyder was speaking at the launch of COCAD's new policy document `Facing the Future' this week. ``Debate around drugs policy is driven by middle-class professionals and academics and is not relevant to the people on the ground,'' he claimed.

Lyder admitted that the organisation's drugs policy had not been highlighted enough in the past, but this was due, he said, to the massive work pressures that were placed on COCAD during the marches against drugs that took place in Dublin from the mid 1990s onwards. ``Communities needed to be reclaimed,'' he said, and this meant that anti-drugs activists were placed under a great deal of pressure.

In 1998 COCAD received funding from the Combat Poverty Agency to assist them in developing the policy dimension of their response to the drugs problem. The document, which is well written and wide-ranging in its terms of reference, was the result of this and seems certain to promote debate around the drugs issue.

However, some of the points made in the document will be seen as controversial at least. In the section entitled Treatment, Rehabilitation and Aftercare, COCAD recommend that the appropriate treatment identified for an addict ``does not necessarily have to be the client's preferred option''. This approach would be rejected by those who believe that addicts cannot be rehabillitated by methods which they themselves find unacceptable.

The document's contention that needle exchange programmes are not proven to be effective in reducing blood borne infections has been disputed by many anti-drugs activists in the past, particularly those in Dublin's Merchant's Quay Project. The programmes, which allow addicts to avail of clean needles before injecting, are arguably a way of reducing harm to the addicts themselves.

Another section regarding `Tenant Induction Programmes' is ambiguous and open to criticism. COCAD state that ``local authorities should develop tenant induction programmes. All new tenants should be required to complete such a programme''. While the aspiration here is admirable - to ensure more inclusion and cohesion in communities - the methodology of forcing people to take part in unspecified ``tenant induction programmes'', sounds at least unwise.

The following is a synopsis of the main points of COCAD's Policy 2000 Document, `Facing the Future''.

Section 1: Policy Development and Implementation



COCAD is calling for:

*A clear, definite National Drugs Strategy from the government with ``definite performance targets''.

The appointement of a National Anti-drugs Co-coordinator as has been done in Britain and the USA.

Resources to be provided for more in-depth research on the drugs issue. This would also include backing for community organisations that are often left out of the research and policy development process.

Local Drugs Task Forces to be radically changed from ``little more than funding agencies'' to integrated, strategic and pro-active organisations, working together as a united team.

Section 2: The Justice System - Policing, Courts, Prisons



COCAD say:

Supply of and demand for drugs cannot be separated from each other when it comes to tackling drug addiction. Drug dealers, they say ``are never content merely to supply an existing market but are always concerned to promote their product, expand the existing market and create new ones''.

The Gardaí and/or the 26 County Department of Justice should produce a formal, strategic position paper on drugs, with a key aim being the protection of communities.

New independent structures at both national and local levels should be established to ensure Garda accountability to the communities most affected by crime and drugs.

Very clear guidelines should be drawn up by the Department of Justice to ensure that the use of Garda ``agents'' and ``controlled deliveries'' is in line with public thinking. In particular, COCAD argue, drugs should never be allowed reach the streets through covert Garda operations.

Drugs supply into prisons must be curbed, while each prisoner should have their personal development prioitised. Rewards for prisoners who maintain a drug free condition, such as parole or early release, would help mainatain a prisoner's drug free condition.

COCAD claims that ``on balance there is no particular evidence that decriminalisation would be of benefit to our communities and consequently any changes to the current legislation cannot be recommended''.

Consistency in the sentencing of drug dealers should be promoted.

Section 3: Treatment, Rehabilitation and Aftercare



COCAD say:

Professional assessment on an ongoing basis and within a specified timeframe should be provided for addicts. They say that the method of treatment ``does not necessarily have to be the client's preferred option''.

Methadone treatment should be viewed as a platform from which the addict can address their addiction, not as an end in itself. Addicts should be required to attend professional counselling as a condition of methadone treatment.

It is not clear, COCAD believe, that needle exchange programmes reduce the spread of blood borne viruses and their logic is questionable. However, they are open to the idea provided the efficacy of needle exchange programmes is supported by strong scientific research.

Measures which serve to `normalise' drugs use, the document states, should be avoided. They claim that supervised injecting rooms or heroin on prescription would make drugs more socially acceptable.

Section 4: Local Authorities



COCAD say:

Tenant participation in the management of their estate should be put on a statutory basis. Standards, progress targets and complaints from residents should be taken seriously and inscribed in law.

COCAD believe that ``all new tenants'' should be required to complete ``tenant induction programmes'' run by local authorities.

Section 5: Education / Prevention



COCAD say:

A national anti-drugs media campaign should be launched. This should have more imagination than merely rehashing the `Just Say No' message. Using more subtle, imaginative advertising and popular personalities is recommended.

More idrugs awareness in the education system, particularly at the pre-experimentation 10 to twelve year old period. Efforts to keep young people in education need to be strengthened considerably.

Training for parents in parenting skills and encouragement to avail of the same.
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