Northern Ireland's drug crisis: Is it time for a policy rethink?

There are calls for a shake-up of drug laws here to save lives and clamp down on paramilitary crime, with arrests at an all time high but the drug-related death toll rising in spite of that.

Overall drugs policy is not devolved, decisions are taken by the Home Office, and the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is the current legislation. .

However, the Home Office insists that Northern Ireland, like Scotland and Wales has its own approach towards tackling drug misuse in areas including policing, criminal justice, healthcare, social care and education.

For example, the Department of Health here has a susbstence abuse strategy called "Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery".

That said, the five decade-old Misuse of Drugs law means that a drug overdose prevention centre cannot technically be built, as possession of drugs is illegal.

Belfast City Council backed the creation of such a facility following a spate of drug-related deaths in the city centre, and charities and bereaved families agree this would be life-saving.

A 10-year Home Office Drugs Strategy is in place, and this has seen 3,000 operations to disrupt Organised Crime Groups, and 1,300 county lines closed.

However, a statement said that the Government "continues to have significant concerns" that overdose prevention centres "risk condoning and encouraging drug misuse, undermining both our efforts to reduce the number of drug users and stem the criminal supply of drugs to users."

Many in NI who back decriminalisation are looking to Scotland as an example of how to circumnavigate some of the rules.

That is because the UK's first official overdose prevention unit is due to be built in Glasgow after campaigners spent years raising the matter with the Home Office and the Scottish legal system.

"So Glasgow has been trying to introduce an overdose prevention facility or safe room for drug consumption for over seven years really," said Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, who works in Glasgow where there are around 500 street injecting drug users.

He told View from Stormont: "It's been stuck on the horns of a dispute between the Scottish Government and the UK Government's Home Office in relation to where competence lies to introduce such a facility, particularly in relation to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

"And faced with that frustration and impasse when I saw people dying in Glasgow on a daily basis, I decided to get together with others and most notably Peter Krykant who is a drugs activist, harm reduction activist, and crowdfunded to create an unofficial overdose prevention pilot based on the back of an old second hand ambulance that we crowdfunded for and converted.

"It operated during 2020 that actually was involved in supervising just under 900 injections of opium or heroin based substances and cocaine, as a result of that, we review supervised and saw nine overdoses involving eight people.

"They were able to successfully reverse those overdoses using naloxone, which is the heroin overdose antidote.

"In the course of that process, we basically were able to save people's lives, which was a great success."

The Home Office says it respects "the independence of the Lord Advocate as Scotland’s prosecutorial authority."

There is a difference between decriminalisation and legalisation.

The former means that anyone in possession for personal use will not be prosecuted, while the latter means that drugs would be legal but controlled by the government.

Former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells does not believe legalisation is the way to go, as criminal gangs would find new ways of working.

"I believe we should stay where we are, there are other countries who have gone to a more liberal approach and it has not worked," he said.

"What they would do is they would continue to source illicit drugs, they would sell them at less than what the state has made mandatory... the same way they do for alcohol and cigarettes.

"And they would continue to make vast amounts so you'd continue to have the criminality involved in the supply of drugs so it isn't the panacea that people think it's going to be."

Last week, the PSNI sent text messages to almost 2,000 numbers recovered from phones seized during recent drug raids were sent a message on Wednesday.

The text warned that it is an offence to possess drugs, but it also sent a link to get help.

"It is bold, but it is part of a UK-wide approach to try and prevent harm within our communities," said DS Emma Neil.

"We are determined to focus on apprehending those on who would supply the drugs within our communities but also supporting those who have drug misuse issues."

This was welcomed by some as a more health-led approach, but others saw it as too soft.

Mr Wells said he thought this was "a big mistake".

"The very least the police should have done is written to them all them and say, this is serious, we are investigating what you're up to, and we take a very very dim view of any form of drug trade because remember without the people buying then you've no suppliers."

Dr Orfhlaith Campbell is an expert in prohibition and a drug reform activist.

"We have to start talking about this in Northern Ireland," she said.

"In Northern Ireland, there is no conversation about what the Misuse of Drugs Act looks like and how it manifests here.

"And it is a priority that we start doing that now because there are things that we can do.

"I believe that the Good Friday Agreement covers us for this section.

"It says that international best practice will be implemented in Northern Ireland for young people, considering our trauma here, and overdose prevention sites are an international best practice and so is decriminalisation."

Dr Campbell also explained that a conversation about decriminalisation is taking place in the Republic of Ireland through a Citizen's Assembly, and that NI should not be left behind.

This complicated problem draws in many departments and bodies.

Health, Justice and Education are already working hand in hand.

We asked the Home Office, the PSNI, the DOJ and a cross-Executive spokesperson for an interview, and no interviewees were put forward. We did receive some written statements.

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to robustly investigate the importation as well as the illegal supply and possession of drugs," said Detective Superintendent Emma Neill, from the Organised Crime Branch.

“Operation Dealbreaker was launched in July 2021 and is a multi-stranded, coordinated, collaborative operational approach to address every aspect of drug misuse across Northern Ireland.

"It is a commitment by the PSNI to protect our communities from drug suppliers and actively pursue those involved in drugs criminality, including organised crime groups. 

“We are determined to disrupt the criminal activity of anyone involved in the drugs trade. Anyone tempted to become involved in the sale of illegal drugs should be under no illusion; we will seek to identify them, arrest them and place them before the courts.

“The Police Service is arresting more people for drugs offences, with a 10 per cent increase from last year.“There has also been a 10 per cent rise in drug seizures across the Police Service in the last year. And in Organised Crime Branch alone, which is responsible for The Police Service’s drugs strategy, there has been a 40 per cent increase in drugs seizures in the last year.

“Organised Crime Branch has seized drugs (since the beginning of April 2023) with a street value in excess of £7 million pounds and in addition recently officers seized £1.7 million of cannabis in Cookstown. Last year Organised Crime Branch seized £9.2 million worth of drugs for the entire financial year.

“The Police Service is arresting more people involved in drug possession and supply and seizing more illicit drugs than ever before. However we cannot arrest and seize our way out of this complex public health issue as it requires a whole system approach.

“As a result, the Police Service works with a huge range of partners, including those represented on the Organised Crime Task Force, to tackle the supply and use of illicit drugs.

"Due to the significant public health issue and the numbers of drugs deaths, we also work with the Department of Health and Public Health Agency, along with a number of charities, in order to provide signpost services to people who misuse drugs."

Stormont has a cross-Executive Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme.

This involves seven NI Civil Service Departments, 15 Statutory agencies and 89 public bodies.

“Paramilitaries are criminal gangs that exploit people who are vulnerable," said the group's director, Adele Brown.

"They control our communities using illegal money lending, drugs and violence, for the benefit of themselves and the illegal gangs to which they belong. These gangs influence people's lives and behaviours and maintain their position in communities through intimidation and the threat of violence.  Paramilitary harm still affects 20-40% of the adult population in Northern Ireland and 20-45% of young people. This can rise to as much as 80% in certain communities.

“Our new Ending the Harm public awareness campaign advert highlights one example of the hidden harm that paramilitary gangs cause, by showing the ongoing coercion and intimidation which a victim is experiencing from a paramilitary group and how they are intimidating her to store drugs and money against her will. This is highly coercive, manipulative behaviour which can have long lasting effects. We need to better understand the impact of trauma as a society and understand the effects of coercive control and respond to those in need in a way which addresses the trauma those people have experienced.

"The programme invests in 100 "unique, innovative, evidence-based interventions" to reduce and prevent violence.

Ms Brown continued: "Paramilitarism isn’t a single problem. It’s a symptom and cause of so many complex problems. The initiatives funded by the Programme focus on helping those facing paramilitary harm in the here and now, ensuring that people, particularly young people, are not drawn into a further cycle of paramilitarism, violence and crime, and that we build the resilience of communities to the influence of these groups and their activities.”

The Home Office said: "“We are working to tackle the supply of illicit drugs through relentless policing action and building a world-class system of treatment and recovery to turn people's lives around, backed by £3 billion funding over three years.

“In the first year of the delivery of the 10-year Drugs Strategy we successfully completed nearly 3,000 operations to disrupt Organised Crime Groups, closed over 1,300 county lines, increased the drug and alcohol treatment workforce with 1,670 additional staff and funded five projects to prevent people from taking drugs in the first place.”

The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction.

To find a service near you, visit health crisis helpline Lifeline can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.

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