Speech by Simon Harris TD, Minister for Health, at the Launch of “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery – a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland”
I want to thank you, Taoiseach, for launching Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery here today. Your presence clearly illustrates the importance that you and the Government attach to countering the issue of problem drug and alcohol use in our society and your recognition of the need for a whole-of-Government approach to tackling this problem.
Firstly I feel that it is important to acknowledge the progress achieved under previous National Drugs Strategies. We now have a range of comprehensive services available; more people are availing of treatment provision and there is a stronger culture of interagency working due to the development of the National Drugs Rehabilitation Framework.
However, the drugs situation does not stand still. As the Taoiseach has said, we are seeing rising rates of drug use among young people, while we still have a significant heroin problem to contend with. One in four adults in Ireland have tried an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime, while it’s estimated that there are up to 1.35 million harmful drinkers in Ireland. Other social problems, such as homelessness and social exclusion, add another layer of complexity to our national drug problem. The time is right for the unveiling of a new strategy and I am delighted to outline to you today the key points of “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery”.
The vision of Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery is to create a healthier and safer Ireland, for the future. This involves a health-led approach, which prioritises achieving better health and social outcomes for people affected by substance misuse by promoting health and wellbeing in society. It also involves mobilising communities and building their resilience to respond to the drug problem, particularly, marginalised communities, which are more susceptible to consequences of problem drug use.
Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery is oriented around five strategic goals, which aim to realise a vision of a healthier and safer Ireland.
Promoting and protecting health and wellbeing puts the needs of people and communities at the centre of the response to substance misuse. It aims to promote healthier lifestyles and support people and communities to make positive changes in their lives. It aims to address the underlying reasons for substance misuse, in particular, the risk factors which may make some people more vulnerable to developing a problem than others. These risk factors may include family circumstances, peer pressure, school or work life.
Preventing or delaying the use of drugs and alcohol at a young age reduces the risk of the young person developing a drug problem later in life. Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery aims to promote the use of evidence-based integrated education and prevention programmes that give young people the skills and confidence to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Harm reduction is also a key prevention strategy for promoting and protecting health and wellbeing among high risk individuals. Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery focuses in particular on meeting the needs of children at risk, whose parents misuse substances. The term “hidden harm” is often applied to children in this situation, as their needs may be hidden from service providers. We must ensure these children are protected and their needs are met. That is why the strategy is proposing:-
- A community action programme to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm – to be delivered by Drug and Alcohol Task Forces;
- The roll-out of Wellbeing Guidelines in our primary and secondary schools to build the resilience of young people; and
- A new scheme to provide targeted, appropriate and effective services for young people in socially and economically disadvantaged communities; and
- Support for evidence-based family and parenting skills programmes for services engaging with high risk families.
Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery advocates a person-centred approach to minimising the harms caused by the use and misuse of substances and promoting rehabilitation and recovery.
This approach recognises the role of the individual in addressing his or her dependence on alcohol and other drugs. It also recognises that the circumstances of each individual are unique and require a response focused on the needs of the individual.
We know that the infrastructure for treatment and rehabilitation services improved under the 2009-2016 strategy. However, the findings of the public consultation indicate that many people around the country are experiencing delays in getting access to treatment or have to travel long distances to receive a service. Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery aims to ensure that more people can get the right help at the right time in the right place.
Giving people a say in their treatment plan and allowing them to set their own treatment goals is crucial, whatever goal they set for their own treatment. Harm reduction and a humane health-led response to those with chronic drug needs is also an important element of this goal. That is why the strategy is recommending:
- The introduction of pilot injecting facility in Dublin’s city centre;
- Expansion of drug and alcohol addiction services;
- Expansion of addiction services for pregnant and postnatal women. This will involve the recruitment of 7 additional drug-liaison midwives; and
- Expansion of addiction services for under 18s, which will be facilitated by the recruitment of 4 Clinical Nurse Specialists and 2 Young Persons Counsellors to complement multi-disciplinary teams for under 18s.
Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery highlights the need to respond to support people to sustain their recovery. For some people, who lack the support of family and friends, they may experience difficulties in sustaining recovery. The strategy recognises the value of after-care programmes that can prevent relapse, through peer-support groups, family support and mutual aid.
Having a job or being able to participate in an education or training programme can make a real difference to someone’s potential for recovery. I particularly welcome the establishment of a working group to look at progression options and to assess the case for a new programme of supported care and employment, for those coming out of treatment, prison or community employment.
As the Taoiseach has highlighted, another group who can find it hard to reintegrate into society, are those who have come into contact with the Criminal Justice system due to drug use. I am pleased to see that the strategy contains a commitment to establish a working group to consider the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. This group is expected to report back in 12 months, and I very much look forward to receiving the recommendations.
The balanced approach adopted in the previous strategies continues in Reducing Harm, Promoting Recovery. This means maintaining a focus on reducing the demand for drugs, while at the same time promoting strategies to reduce access to drugs for harmful use.
I would like to acknowledge the continuing success of An Garda Síochána and Revenue’s Customs Service, who collaborate with their international counterparts, in order to stem the flow of potentially harmful substances which are destined for the Irish market.
I welcome the inclusion of measures in the strategy to strengthen the capacity of the relevant agencies to monitor changing drug markets, in particular, new drug markets that are being facilitated through the surface web and dark net. I am particularly pleased that my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality has recently announced plans to construct a purpose built new Forensic Science laboratory, which will greatly improve facilities for monitoring and analysis. I understand that construction is due to commence shortly.
Strengthening the resilience of communities and building their capacity to respond is the fourth goal of the strategy. We know that substance misuse affects everyone and all communities. The Taoiseach has already highlighted the fact that some communities are disproportionately affected by the drug problem. Criminal activity and an active illicit drug market can create an intimidating and frightening environment in an affected community.
This goal focuses on supporting community participation in the development of drug policies and services, so that communities can shape the policies which are designed to address the problems they face. I welcome the planned reviews of the drug-related intimidation reporting programme by An Garda Síochána and the National Family Support Network. We need to raise awareness of this programme and give more people the confidence to report drug-related intimidation. People deserve to feel safe in their own communities.
Developing sound and comprehensive evidence-informed policies and actions is the fifth goal of this strategy. Routine monitoring provides information on the nature, extent and consequences of substance misuse. This data helps us to formulate evidence-informed policy, plan services and measure the effectiveness of the responses to the drug problem.
The provision of data on the national drugs situation to the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is a key requirement under this goal. This helps to build a profile of the drugs situation in Europe. It also helps us to understand the changing drugs scene in Ireland.
We are committed to making progress on the delivery of the actions in the strategy in the current year. In this regard, €3m has been made available to the HSE which will enable them to:
- Commission 105 new treatment episodes from residential treatment and rehabilitation services,
- Get the new Supervised Injecting Facility up and running;
- enhance services for under 18s;
- make suboxone, an alternative substitution treatment for people with heroin problems, more widely available; and
- provide more detoxification places.
This is an ambitious and hugely important strategy. We must all work together now to respond to Ireland’s drug and alcohol problem and ensure the actions contained in “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery” are implemented in full, for the good of all of our people.