Campaigners call for care and compassion towards people who use drugs

December 16, 2019

In a new video for the #SaferFromHarm campaign, Nicole Ryan, whose brother Alex died of a drug related death in 2016, is calling for a compassionate response to people who use drugs, free from shame and stigma.

“Alex had his whole life ahead of him. He had hopes, he had dreams, just like any other young person. This will be our third Christmas without him. Sadly we never had really open discussions about drug use with Alex. The fact is that a lot of people use drugs, but they just don’t normally talk about it, because they feel they will be stigmatised.”, said Nicole Ryan, 26, Cork. 

A previous poll, carried out by RED C as part of the #SaferFromHarm campaign, found that 8 out of 10 Irish adults are in favour of an intervention from health professionals when it comes to their loved ones using drugs.

Speaking on behalf of the #SaferFromHarm campaign, CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, Tony Duffin said:

“Christmas is a time for families, but sadly for Nicole and her family, this will be another Christmas without their brother and son Alex. Families across Ireland who have experiences with drug use recognise that it is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. We know this to be true and it is time we adopted an effective, meaningful health-led response. By choosing to respond in a compassionate and pragmatic way, we have the chance to rebuild lives and keep people, our families, safer from harm.”

A proposed new policy on the possession of drugs for personal use was announced by the Government in August. Under these proposals, in the first instance of being found in possession, a mandatory health referral to the HSE will be issued by Gardaí. However, beyond this one opportunity, the policy remains firmly in the criminal justice domain, with second offences resulting in a discretionary adult caution being applied and subsequent offences apparently being dealt with through expensive criminal prosecutions as is currently the case. Given that addiction can be a chronic, relapsing condition, campaigners are concerned that the new policy will serve to inadvertently focus harm on those who are already struggling.

Duffin continued:

“Whilst this proposed policy is a step in the right direction – it does not go far enough. Surely if drug use is a health issue the first time, it is a health issue the hundredth time. People who use drugs should be given every opportunity under a health led model, not punished simply because they possess drugs for personal use. Potentially, an unintended consequence of this proposed policy is that drug use will be treated as a health issue and problematic drug use will be treated as a crime, because those who are struggling with their drug use are more likely to be found in possession more than once, and thus more likely to attract punitive sanctions. Yet these are the people who need support the most.”

Campaigners want to see a meaningful and effective health-led response – one that will genuinely reduce harm, support recovery and rebuild lives, rather than one that will only punish those who need help the most.

Duffin concluded:

“The message will be clear – it’s safer not to use drugs at all, and all drug use carries risks. However, if you do use drugs we want to look after you, we want to make sure you’re safe and ultimately if you have a drug problem, we want to support you and give you every opportunity to make safer and healthier choices. We cannot achieve broad public health aims like this by the threat of punishment.”

If you need support at Christmas time, contact the Samaritans on 116 123.

For more information please visit

Video available to download here and on YouTube here.

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