Father Peter McVerry has told local councillors that drugs were now endemic in every village in Ireland as he called upon politicians in the North not to repeat the mistakes made south of the border.
Father McVerry appeared in person to deliver a presentation before Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Health and Community Committee at its monthly meeting in Strabane last Thursday evening.
Addressing local councillors, Fr. McVerry said that Derry city and district was itself facing a major drugs crisis, including increased addiction to prescription drugs.
Earlier, the Jesuit priest - who is renowned across Ireland and internationally for his work with, and on behalf of, people who are homeless or suffering from drug dependency - told the committee that he hoped the decision makers in the North would not repeat the mistakes made in the south.
He said that the first major mistake the Irish Government made back in the 1980s was to “demonise” drug users.
“That was a disastrous policy,” he claimed. “It marginalised young people and pushes them to the fringes of society and makes them more likely to continue to use drugs. The result of that was to have a punitive approach to drug users, to punish them and lock them up.”
He said that initially the government did nothing about drug use as it expanded and only really got involved when it became clear that HIV was being spread through people sharing needles and even then addressed the consequences of drug use, but not the issue of drug users.
“Now drugs are available in every village in Ireland. I can get any drug delivered quciker than a pizza and it will be delivered by a 13-years-old kid on a bike,” said Fr. McVerry.
“I work a lot with drug users and I have buried too many drug users - I do about one funeral a month and it is usually a young person who died as a result of overdose.
“I understand we have a huge suicide rate in this area and if you push drug users out saying: ‘We don’t want you; we reject you,’ all you are doing is pushing them out.”
He said that while he wished nobody would ever dabble, the reality was that “almost every young person is going to try drugs.”
He advocated teaching children not only about the dangers of drugs, but also about the different effects of different drugs.
He went on: “Every disco, every party they go to, there will be drugs available.
“The solution seems to me to be discovering young people are using drugs is to open lines of communication, not to rejection. If you reject them their self-esteem hits rock bottom and they feel they are bad people; they’re no good; nobody wants them and that is a major factor in continuing drug use.”
Heroin use, he added, was now decreasing in Dublin, while Crack Cocaine is now making its presence felt in the capital.
“Crystal Meth is also extremely easy to make and will devastate whole communities in the Republic of Ireland and it is already coming in and they are selling it at half price to get people hooked. The problems we are seeing today eclipse any problem we have had with Heroin.”
The profits to be made in drugs were huge, the committee was told, with Dublin’s 20 main drug gangs netting over E1 million a week each. Long treatment waiting lists for drug addiction in Ireland, meanwhile, often meant the six to eight weeks window of opportunity when a drug addict has reached the point they want to give up, is often closed long before they are given an opportunity to access what are very limited services.
Fr McVerry said that Portugal’s decision to transfer drugs from under the Department of Justice to the Department of Health and decriminalise personal drug use while, at the same time, increasing treatment options, has had a massive impact with drug-related deaths slashed, the prison population decreasing and new cases of HIV falling as a result.
“There is a huge amount of work to be done with the public to accept the fact that somebody with a small amount of drugs is not going to be arrested or prosecuted,” he noted.
DUP Councillor Hilary McClintock described Fr McVerry’s presentation as “very insightful.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Christopher Jackson said: “Drugs use was a big issue the length and breadth of this island. The response to tackling the drugs problem should be an All-Ireland approach as well.”
Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher said it seemed “we are on a treadmill” in relation to finding a method of how to deal with the drugs crisis “and it seems to be getting us nowhere.” He said that there were people getting criminal records that, in turn, ruin their futures, adding that they were all aware of the high suicide rate locally.
SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney said that the presentation was ‘very frank and worrying.’
“I think everybody would accept that we do have a drugs issue in this council area” and he asked Fr. McVerry how he felt the problem with prescription drugs could be addressed. “It is something we are seeing a lot more of at the minute?” Colr. Tierney asked.
Fr. McVerry replied that prescription drug addiction was also a huge problem in the south. He said that getting people off such tablets was often “an absolute nightmare,” particularly in relation to Benzodiazepines.
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said that he and a number of other councillors had visited Fr. McVerry and paid tribute to the work he has been doing on the drugs problem and also the homeless problem.
“We do have a massive drug problem here and it is not going away. Beating people up will not stop an addict from doing what addicts do.”
He claimed that there was a widespread belief that Heroin issues were resulting from people encountering the drug in prison.
An addiction counsellor and former drug addict, introduced to the committee as Brendan, said that in terms of protecting children, you actually did more damage by not educating them about drugs.
“We also need to be educating them about their emotions and expressing their emotions,” he said. “They should not be coming home and have their dad saying ‘Will you man up!’ or ‘Boys don’t cry’. If we weren’t supposed to cry we wouldn’t physically be able to cry. It is much easier to nurture a child than it is to fix an adult.”
The counsellor also told the politicians: “We need to leave party politics, colours, flags, religion aside. We are all in the same boat here and water is coming in. Everybody needs to bail out together.
“This will affect your children, your unborn grandchildren and the consequences of us doing nothing about this now will be devastating.”