Strategies aimed at tackling an increasing drug problem in Derry, Northern Ireland must be founded in reality, according to a prominent local drugs worker…
John McBride, of the Divert Project, was speaking in the wake of Belfast’s hosting of the 16th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm.
The idea of Harm Reduction is gaining favour amongst many practitioners and policy makers, locally and internationally. Mr McBride defines Harm Reduction as “employing methods to make drug use cause as little personal, social and economic harm to the individual and community they live in.”
Harm Reduction’s ideology is based on acknowledging that individuals will and do use drugs. Previous policies and thinking had centred on the promotion of total abstinence.
The need to incorporate this ethos at a local level is paramount, explained McBride: “The drug situation here has developed and changed, so too therefore must the services and methods used to deal with it. In Derry city, whilst research is scarce, drug cultures appear to be well established.
"Primarily people are using cannabis and ecstasy, though we aware anecdotally of growing cocaine use. The Divert Project is also concerned at the continued and alarming rates of underage alcohol use. These activities are detrimental to the individual and to the communities they live in," he continues.
"We live in times of a greater variety of drugs, greater quantities of drugs, and of greater availability of drugs. Strategies aimed at combating the negative effects of this must be based in reality. It is unrealistic to assume we can prevent drug use.”
Critics of Harm Reduction believe it to merely encourage drug use. The Christian Institute says: “Turning a blind eye to mainstream morality in the hope of promoting safety is the well-intentioned but flawed thinking which lies behind what is called Harm Reduction.”
This is not the case explains McBride: “Where we can promote total abstinence, we do. Ironically, abstinence can be seen as Harm Reduction in its extreme form. Potential harm is dramatically reduced if the individual is abstinent. We promote abstinence within the seven secondary schools and 30 primary schools we are involved with," he explains.
"However the Teenage Kicks research project undertaken in 2003 by the Divert Project indicates that by Year 10, half of school pupils had tried alcohol at least once in the past 12 months. Approximately 25 per cent had reported using cannabis on at least one occasion. Projects such as Divert are relatively recently established. The cycle of drug use has been with us for years," he adds.
“When preventing use is non applicable, when someone is taking drugs and has no intention of stopping then reducing the harm it causes is logical and sensible. To use the example of a twice-weekly ecstasy user, who is perhaps taking up to seven tablets a week, working to reduce the frequency and why and how the drug is used must take priority. Abstinence is the ideal, but reducing the harm caused by their drug taking is the reality.”
Implementing Harm Reduction strategies has often proved controversial.
In countries where intravenous heroin use is widespread, state-sponsored needle exchange programmes are commonplace. Opposition has often arisen from police, local administrations and community groups, the media and religious groups. Mr McBride counter-argues: “Heroin use has many health related problems for the individual and for the society he belongs to. Reducing harm is essential and in the public’s interest. Non-drug users must not suffer a drug user’s problem.”
In a less extreme example of the implementation of Harm Reduction McBride cites the ever-popular Revolution under age nightclub he promotes.
“The young people who attend Revolution must be praised," he says.
"The majority choose not to use alcohol and drugs. They enjoy the music, the dancing and the company of their friends. As the promoter, I am aware of potential pitfalls. We have had young people who are intoxicated attempt to gain access. Obviously they do not get admitted. It is all about creating a safe environment. To that end there are child protection policies and a drug policy in place."
McBride says a drugs worker is in attendance to assess any situations that may arise. "To date they have not been very busy, spending much of the evening talking and listening to the young people," he says.
"I advise parents to ensure that their children are dropped off and collected safely. The event is all about reducing harm, actual or potential.”
That society does not operate on a level playing field presents a challenge to those trying to combat the impact of drug use.
McBride continued: “Education and information are only one aspect of what the individual needs to determine their choice regarding drug use. Other factors such as high unemployment, educational attainment, an increased supply of drugs must all be addressed with the same gusto and vigour in order to create the situation where drug information has a chance to operate to its full potential.”
The significance of Belfast hosting this year’s International Harm Reduction Conference was not lost on Mr McBride.
“It was extremely important to have this conference in Belfast," he says.
"It allows practitioners here to gain an international perspective. It will no doubt enhance the understanding of professionals here of sensible and practical methods of Harm Reduction.”
Ben and Michael (not their real names) are positive examples of people who have benefited through contact with the Divert Project.
Ben says: "Before I came to the Divert project I was involved with a gang from my area. We were involved in drinking a lot at weekends, some of the group smoked dope and some would sniff aerosols. Adults would always give off to us, and we would just annoy them more. This got us a bad reputation. Divert took us away and got us into activities. We even made a booklet about solvents, and I knew then that I was never going to use them even if my friends did. I do drink a bit now, but I know that I will never use drugs."
Gerry says: "I was glad to get advice on drugs from the Divert Project. My head was a bit messed up and I thought it was because of my problems. Talking to the lady at Divert made me see that the drugs were making these feelings worse and not better. I still take them sometimes but never the way I did back then. Now I take them about once a month, and only a couple. Then I would have taken four or five a night and this was at least twice a week. I thought they were supposed to make you happy.