DRUGS FIGURES PAINT INCORRECT PICTURE OF MISUSE
MULTIPLE DRUG USE NOW THE NORM,
HEROIN SHUNNED BY YOUNG
Government drug policy is too centred on heroin abuse, fails to take account of the realities of current usage trends and needs to focus on individual user behaviour if it is to reflect the true picture and formulate meaningful responses, a leading academic at National University of Ireland Maynooth urged.
A Dizzying Array of Substances; An Ethnographic Study of Drug Use in the Canal Communities is the result of a long-term study which closely examined the realities of drug use in local life of Rialto, Bluebell and Inchicore, three communities served by the Canal Communities Local Drugs Task Force. It was led by principal investigator Dr A Jamie Saris and primary field researcher Fiona O’Reilly at the Department of Anthropology, NUI Maynooth.
The ethnographic research, carried out mostly in 2008 and early 2009, gives the most compelling evidence to date that multiple drug use is the norm amongst drug users in the Canal Communities and, the researchers concluded, most probably in other areas.
“The big problem is that as far as government is concerned, ‘drugs’, from a treatment perspective, has traditionally meant heroin. Thus, the apparent leveling off of the need for a very opiate-centric treatment service in the Canal Communities in recent years is deceptive” said Dr Saris.
Besides the ethnographic work, the study surveyed, on a long term basis, 92 people using either heroin or methadone in the study area. Unsurprisingly most of those surveyed were on methadone (98%). Of those surveyed:
•63% claimed to have used heroin in the previous three months
•30% had used crack cocaine
•22% had used powder cocaine
•46% had also taken street tranquilisers
•50% were on prescribed tranquillisers, and
•60% had also smoked cannabis within the past three months.
“The majority of those registered on the methadone treatment programme are also using a cocktail of other substances, very often including heroin. Multiple drug use is the reality for nearly all users, and official policy needs to have this understanding at its centre”, Saris said.
In the course of their study, the research team also noted a strong stigma against heroin use amongst the 16-25 age group who still regularly used a lot of other substances, including cocaine and off-label prescription medication. “The reality is that these people are difficult for a treatment infrastructure built around opiates to service. If they have issues, they are more difficult to address,” said Saris.
" The stress that policy-makers and community activists place on ‘crack’ or ‘heroin’ or any other single drug as clear and present social dangers obscures the ubiquity of polydrug use. It makes it appear that these users are very different from other drug-users in the rest of society including cannabis and recreational cocaine users, and it also obscures how commonly legal pharmaceuticals, such as benzodiazepines, even methadone itself, are regularly consumed ‘illegally’.”
He said that a focus on drug use alone is the mistake. “The lives we examined, however damaged by an attraction to certain pharmaceuticals, are rarely defined solely by such behaviour. These people are also sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, partners and lovers, as well as employees and community members. This sensibility does in fact inform a lot of local community activities aimed at assisting users, but such work is often difficult to justify to official funders under the rubric of ‘treatment’, as currently understood. Unless we can understand who users are, what they are taking and why, we will not be able to assign the appropriate resources, treatments or management systems.”
Tony MacCarthaigh, chairperson of the Canal Communities Local Drugs Task Force commented that “individuals and not chemicals need to become the focal point of treatment, and treatment needs to assist individuals in developing another orientation not just to drugs, but to life".