Six young homeless men have died from drug overdoses in Belfast in the last two weeks. There have been a number of headlines in the press these past few days.
It topped some news bulletins on the radio and television. Spokespeople from those working on the frontline were contacted for comment and we all agree, once again, that ‘more needs to be done’.
However, come next week the issue will start to fade from public consciousness.
‘Isolated’ overdose deaths will not make the news and we’ll walk past the young homeless person ‘tapping’ on Great Victoria Street or lying in a sleeping bag on Royal Avenue without a second thought. Sad but true.
We clearly need a focused and sustained public debate on mental health/addictions issues that other countries have already had and decisively acted on.
Last year the Housing Executive assessed more than 15,000 applications from people that presented as homeless.
That is equivalent to the population of Armagh city and is a statistic that is set to grow as we face into a winter that will be challenging for most households as the cost of living crisis tightens its grip.
Homelessness, poor mental health, and addiction is a vicious circle that many struggle to get out of. It is much more difficult for anyone to climb out of these situations if the necessary government systems and mechanisms that are in place are not fit for purpose.
A person with a ‘dual diagnosis’ has both mental health and addiction problems and often one can contribute to the other. We need a more holistic system here that ensures that those with dual diagnosis get the best standard of care, with the right housing and support solutions, to help them progress and better their lives.
Addiction is a disease like any other. Yet we still stigmatise it, criminalise it and marginalise it. That is why it is getting so much worse.
The Scottish Government has called for powers relating to the misuse of drugs to be devolved so that they can modernise drugs policy and make it fit for purpose.
Our own Assembly, should it be restored, should step up and request that this responsibility be transferred to Stormont as the Westminster approach has been an abject failure.
A Labour MSP is currently bringing forward a Private Members Bill in Edinburgh that will establish Overdose Prevention Centres. These would be safe, hygienic supervised environments for personal drug consumption and their introduction would undoubtedly prevent the deaths of some of the most vulnerable in society.
The legislation would also establish a Scottish Drug Deaths Council to work to reduce drug use, support recovery and stop preventable drugs deaths.
Momentum towards a more public health-based approach is building in Scotland with the Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, their head prosecutor, telling legislators last year that those caught with Class A drugs such as heroin could be given a warning instead of being prosecuted.
Bain called the measures “diversion from prosecution” and that used appropriately, this could help prevent reoffending and make it easier for those found in possession of drugs to be rehabilitated.
Our Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride has also said that consideration should be given to introducing ‘consumption rooms’ to reduce the risk of people dying from overdoses.
As someone who has worked in a support role with people with addictions I know only too well the benefit of being in the proximity of someone when they overdose, having access to naloxone (overdose medication) and simply being there to contact emergency services.
It saves lives and it is better if people overdose in a setting where there is lifesaving support than in an alleyway or a street alone.
A number of our MLAs including the outgoing Belfast Mayor Kate Nicholl and Gerry Carroll MLA are supportive of the decriminalisation of cannabis but most of our politicians are afraid, electorally speaking, to touch on the decriminalisation issue at all.
Locally we need a policy that is based on prevention through support, education and rehabilitation not a punishment first approach that criminalises victims of addiction.
This isn’t just an issue in Belfast or Derry.
Homelessness and addiction are becoming growing problems in more rural areas and the subjects of some debate amongst members of Fermanagh and Omagh Council.
Howard Thornton, a UUP councillor from Enniskillen and former police Drug Squad member, supports people being allowed small amounts of cannabis for legal consumption and said recently that “there was far more damage caused by the oversubscription of prescription drugs than there was from cannabis”.
According to The Detail investigative website the PSNI seized cannabis on 26,500 occasions between 2016 and 2021 but only 16,000 seizures of all other drugs combined. This shows that our drugs policy is overfocused on a substance that is now being made legal in many other countries.
Increasingly people are becoming addicted to and overdosing on prescription drugs. Pregabalin was implicated in 35% of drug-related deaths recorded in 2019, diazepam in 26% and tramadol in 13%.
It seems like the restoration of our local Assembly and Executive is still some way off.
However, that should not stop our MLAs from bringing forward proposals and setting out their proposed solutions to our addictions/mental health epidemic.
It’s time we had a mature and grown-up debate about drug abuse prevention.