The shame and self-loathing experienced be people addicted to illegal drugs were compounded by being criminalised, a recovering addict has warned.
In an impassioned plea for the decriminalisation of personal drug use, Anne Buckley said during her 17 years as a heroin addict in Dublin she was "shunned, excluded and looked down upon as an outcast, rejected".
“My experience of stigma has done far more damage to me than I may ever realise. I was 19 when I smoked heroin for the first time after which I began to feel worthless, unworthy of love, kindness or any kind of education, housing or healthcare.”
Now seven years clean and in college, Ms Buckley was speaking at a press conference hosted by the Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign on its concerns that drug use may not be decriminalised despite recommendations from various bodies that this happen.
“Because of drug use being deemed a crime, I couldn’t sustain employment, I couldn’t reach out for help . . . From media, communities, society [I heard I was a] junkie, scum, low-life, lazy, selfish, self-centred, self-seeking, untrustworthy . . . This was my internal dialogue for the first 17 years of my young adult life,” Ms Buckley said.
Arguments in favour of decriminalisation say it reduces crime as addicts are more likely to seek treatment, and frees up police and court time as addiction is treated as a health rather than a criminal issue.
A working group, established by the Department of Health to examine alternatives to criminalisation, will report to the Minister for the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, in coming weeks.
Leaks suggest it may instead recommend a “diversion” approach where those found with drugs are put into a diversion scheme operated by the gardaí within the criminal justice system.
Ms Buckley said such an approach would continue to stigmatise young addicts telling them they were “doing something wrong”.
“The effects of that policy on my mind growing up because I was a drug-user had to be weeded out of my psyche. Please stop making out that the kids are doing something wrong . . . They are not going to open up to you. They are not going to reach out.
“The harm of what that stigmatised approach did to me – I internalised it. . . You have to stop. This can’t continue. It is not the right approach . . .You need to open up and listen to people like me. Please, I am literally begging you. Stop. Stop hurting us. We don’t deserve it. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Tony Duffin, chief executive of the Ana Liffey drug project, said it had been a "mistake" 40 years ago to criminalise the use of drugs.
"This is the moment to move into action. Every 12 hours someone dies from a drug-related death in Ireland. We will see that number come down I am sure of it [with decriminalisation]. It is very, very important. We will save people's lives and move them through into treatment faster."
If the working group did not recommend decriminalisation, he said: “the opportunity will be missed and we do need brave political leadership at this point”.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the British charity Release which has an expertise on legal policy on drugs, said police diversion schemes were in place in some states in the United States and in Australia where there was a "lack of political leadership on the issue".
Among those at the press conference supporting the call for decriminalisation were TDs Róisín Shortall (Social Democrats), Dessie Ellis (Sinn Féin), Joan Collins (Independent), Bríd Smith (People Before Profit) and Joan Burton (Labour).