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Moving Forward by Changing the Narrative on Drug Use

On Friday February 12, 2016, I presented to the UCC Journalism Society on a subject that I am passionate about.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines addiction as the dependence syndrome and as:

"being a cluster of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive phenomena in which the use of a substance or a class of substances takes on a much higher priority for a given individual than other behaviours that once had greater value."

Note that the term addiction is not used by the WHO. The term addiction for many is a label people carry for the rest of their lives. For example, “I am a recovering addict,” or “I am an addict.” The term addict for many is demeaning and adds to the stigma of an individual who uses drugs.

This article was first published on the author's website. It has been edited slightly in this version. You can read the original here.

In my experience most of the people I have worked with have suffered trauma in one way or another and use drugs as a coping mechanism. For many, stigma prevents people from accessing help because of the feelings of worthlessness and shame.

Much of the recent media debate in Ireland is on drug policy reform and the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use, which removes the drug user from criminal sanctions and moves it to a health approach. In many of the articles discussing decriminalisation the term addicts or drug abusers along side a picture of  "The Needle" has been shown in most articles. I don’t know why the media still continue to use a picture of a needle when addressing the issue of drugs — it's become a stereotypical picture where those who inject drugs are dehumanised and it ignores the attributes these individuals have.

Media play a large part in influencing government policies in many areas. The media have a role in providing accurate information and informing public perception and on issues using terminology such as clean, addict, and drug abusers is dehumanising as it becomes the defining feature of an individual's character.

The label can be hard to escape. News reports often reinforce and perpetuate the stigma of drug dependence, with individuals sometimes referred to as “former drug addicts,” or as in some news reports on drug-related deaths “known heroin user” or, "ex-heroin user.”

This labelling is most stark in the way drug-related deaths are reported; for example, the fatalities from alcohol are not reported in the same way as those die where heroin or methadone is implicated. As we move drug use discourse to a health related matter so the narratives within the media need to follow and terminology needs to change to reduce the stigma for those individuals that use drugs, otherwise the public perception will remain the same.

On Medically Supervised Injection Centres 

In 2012 I made a presentation "Supervised Injecting Facilities – 'The Case'". In the past 12 months, the discussion on these sites has come to the forefront within the media and within political circles. We have seen a lot of attention being given to Medically Supervised Injecting Centers; however, most of  the attention has been to reduce the presence of needles on the street ,which indeed needs to be highlighted. But, my concern is that all the other services that are attached to these centres haven’t been highlighted, such as, blood-borne virus screening, detoxification, methadone maintenance treatment, and referrals to other treatment services.

These centres provide a Continuum of Care Approach, as Liz Evans, formerly of InSite in Vancouver highlighted:  

"we need to avoid simple narratives when describing injecting facilites as they are only part of the jigsaw in the social context."

Spent Convictions Bill

Recently it was announced that the Spent Convictions Bill will come into legislation in April 2016. While I welcome this new bill I see a conflict between it and the discussions on decriminalisation. For many people who want to rehabilitate themselves employment is a key factor.

  • The current bill states that a conviction can be become "spent" after 7 years for a conviction that is less than a 12 month custodial sentence or a 24 month suspended sentence. The bill doesn’t distinguish between the nature of the sanction and the rehabilitation period, rather having the blanket 7 year period for all sanctions, whether a small fine or 12 months in prison.
  • Only one  conviction becomes spent and subsequent convictions remain on record.

So for those individuals who have more than one conviction this bill does not help in any way moving them on from their past, and for many it keeps them in the cycle of poverty and unemployment

For decriminalisation to work in its full capacity this bill needs to change by:

  1. Removing the cap of the number of convictions that become spent.
  2. Being proportionate between the nature of the sanction and the rehabilitation period, rather than the blanket 7 year period for all sanctions.

The importance of employment, formal or informal, for wellbeing and participation in society is well established, and for people who have had drug problems it can be vital for establishing a new social identity. This bill in its current form hinders this potential progression.

Other References

Irish Press Ombudsman upholds complaint from coalition of drug services. Human Rights and Drugs.

A Rapid Assessment Research (RAR) of drug and alcohol related public nuisance in Dublin City Centre.

Open Drug Scenes and Drug-Related Public Nuisance: A Visual Rapid Assessment Research Study in Dublin, Ireland.

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