People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann has spoken of the loss of an old flatmate who died from a heroin overdose in London, saying he believes alcohol was the “gateway drug” that led his friend on to harder and ultimately lethal substances.
Mr McCann was speaking during a debate on the liberalisation of the licensing laws at Stormont on Tuesday.
The Foyle MLA said that while he was in favour of liberalising the law with regard to late opening, the problem of alcohol abuse, which routinely results in “city centres carpeted with young people out of their heads on drink,” needed to be at the centre of a wider debate.
The People Before Profit MLA spoke of his personal experience of losing a friend to drug addiction when he was living in Blackheath in London years ago.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately, in my career as a journalist, and simply because of growing up and living in this society, North and South, I have known quite a number of people who, sadly, were addicted to heroin and many who died from heroin.
“I had a good friend - a flatmate - who died from heroin. “He had wanted to get off the heroin but simply could not,” said Mr McCann.
The Foyle MLA suggested drink had been the gateway to heroin for his friend.
“He began on alcohol. I have never known a junkie who did not start on alcohol before going on to heroin; I have never known a junkie who went on to heroin as a result of smoking cannabis,” he said.
He went on to note how unrealistic alcohol advertising generally is.
“If you turn on your television at night, you will see adverts telling you that, if you drink alcohol, you will have a wonderful time, you will be freed from your inhibitions, and no harm will come to you,” he said.
“Who has ever seen an advert for Guinness ending with the sight of young people lying on the pavement being sick into the gutter?
“Who has ever seen that, yet it is not an untypical result of overindulgence in alcohol?” he asked.
He further asked: “Why do companies like Diageo, which makes Guinness, spend millions of pounds making very well-made, artistically very impressive adverts to put on television?
“They do so to invite people to drink and drink more. “That happens all the time, and there is no real debate about it.”
But Mr McCann said he was nonetheless “a liberal” who was in favour of liberalising the licensing laws and that he would not be in favour of restrictions on alcohol advertising.
Notwithstanding this, he said a wider debate was needed and that education should be front and centre of discussions.
“You cannot walk through many of our city centres late at night or early in the morning at weekends without seeing squares and streets in city centres carpeted with young people out of their heads on drink.
“There is a very interesting question as to why that happens. What is it about alcohol that leads that to happen?
“That needs investigation. It needs medical and social evidence to be brought before us before we can make a determination as to what conclusion shall be drawn from that.”