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31 May 2001 Edition

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Part 3: The Drugs Debate


Their emotional growth stops when they take heroin on a regular basis. Their ability to relate to people is impaired. All their relationships are impaired
Despite drug use being a very prevalent social phenomenon in Ireland today and, as reported in last week's An Phoblacht, one of the most lucrative industries in the world, it is possibly one of the least understood.

Such is the divergence of views among those working with drug addicts, never mind the views of the public, that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain what your own views are on the issue before you even try to reach agreement with others.

Ray McGrath, who has been involved in anti-drugs activism over the past 20 years, has seen many changes in the way people think about drugs. Some of his views would probably be seen as controversial.

McGrath works in Dublin's Merchant's Quay Project, which caters, specifically, for heroin addicts seeking treatment. He became interested in the drugs scene during the late 1970s, before, he says, there was any major drugs problem in Dublin. This interest persisted, with his involvement in the Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD) organisation, and resulted in him taking an Addiction Studies course at Trinity College Dublin in 1989. He had previously worked as a painter for 27 years.

Since then, McGrath has worked for the Anna Liffey drugs project and the Dublin South Inner City Canals Project. He is now employed as Health Promotion Manager in Merchant's Quay.

McGrath says the primary function of CPAD was to create a focus around which people could begin to feel empowered, despite what he describes as the ``na•vety'' of many activists. ``People were doing something and they were effective. The notion of that kind of change was huge, was revolutionary. As a trade union activist all my life, I was delighted. People were feeling their own strength and power.

``But there was also a kind of innocence, a na•vety almost. There was a sense that we were always right, but you have to look at the situation at the time. You had the mobilising of a large amount of people, but nobody really knew what heroin was, except that it was causing problems.''

One of the misconceptions that emerged during these times is the belief that heroin addicts are not responsible for, or aware of their own predicament, McGrath maintains. He believes that this perception effectively excluded addicts from the drugs debate.

``We paid the price for that,'' he says. ``You can't consult with people you don't deem to have any acumen.''

He also criticises the lack of consultation with young people in general. After all, he says, they are the ones most likely to be using drugs. One consequence of this lack of consultation is that sometimes older people in communities preach to young people about the evils of drugs from a badly informed position, he says.

An example of bad information, McGrath believes, could be the widespread idea that hash is a so-called `gateway drug' - that it inevitably leads on to abuse of harder drugs. Successive studies have largely disproven this, he says.

``Young people today are sometimes surprisingly astute in terms of their use of drugs. They know what effects different drugs have and where and when different drugs are taken.''

Problem drug use arises when people are marginalised from society, when they feel that they are not valued. It also happens when they have very little resources or facilities available to divert them away from drugs. That prejudice is added to by the fact that young people who take drugs in poorer areas are more likely to be penalised than a counterpart doing the same in Blackrock.

Drugs cannot be eliminated from society, but we must strive to reduce the harm they cause nevertheless, McGrath says. ``People are people, they will seek out pleasurable alternatives to an otherwise mundane life. We have to have controls, but we must focus on reducing harm to addicts.''

The current govenment policy of treating the drugs issue as a medical problem is not effective, he says. ``There's millions being poured into this medical model, which is very regimented. But there's a social, community element to this which is very important. A lot of young addicts say `I want off methadone, but they won't let me'. We need to give them other options.''

Someone who agrees with McGrath, in terms of the failure thus far of government policy, is Fr Peter McVerry. The Catholic priest is well known for his work for homeless people in Dublin. He manages three hostels in the city and says that, while alcoholism was traditionally the most notable form of substance abuse amongst homeless people, this has shifted to heroin and other drugs in recent times.

``Every person taking drugs has a right to become drug free if they choose to do so and I don't think they're being given that right,'' McVerry says. Residential and counselling services need to be provided if that right is to be secured. ``That will require a massive increase in resources.''

Giving addicts a range of treatment options is something McVerry also recommends. ``The model of treatment must be appropriate to the particular person,'' he says.

``Heroin users are emotionally immature by definition. Their emotional growth stops when they take heroin on a regular basis. Their ability to relate to people is impaired. All their relationships are impaired.''

In his work, McVerry sees depression as a major factor in addicts' lives. This often led them to heroin in the first place. He believes that the economic boom and consumerism has ironically left them in a bleaker world. They are left with little of real value.

``There is even more depression and less hope in their lives today than ever before. Young people take heroin in order to suppress the emotional feelings that are associated with the very difficult lives they are leading and perhaps with the very traumatic experiences of childhood.

``They can get jobs now, not very good jobs. But in society today it is very difficult to both value and maintain relationships. Consumerism suggests that you find satisfaction in the acquisition of consumer goods. Many young people see success as having Levis, Nikes, a mobile phone. They find that their happiness in life is more dependant on relationships.''

McVerry says that that includes their relationship with society - a society that has failed them, a society that sees them as empty vessels and doesn't listen to what they have to say.

Amidst all the disagreement between experts and self-appointed experts on the drugs issue, an open ear for young people and young addicts is a scarce occurrence.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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