ADDICTION & EMPATHY: Kelly Doherty investigates how Ireland can overcome prejudice to support people with addictions

It’s undeniable that drugs are becoming part of the mainstream. Our latest content series set about uncovering the most progressive and exciting emerging voices on the topic, sitting down with them to understand their perceptions and opinions of drug culture in Ireland, and the world today.

This is Truth on Drugs. Future thinking on drugs and society.

For generations, drug addiction has been a complex and multifaceted issue, one that is frequently mishandled and misunderstood. Addiction is often used as a battering ram to justify the War on Drugs whilst addiction services and supports go underfunded. What is apparent is that people at the heart of the addiction discussion are not given sufficient support. It’s time to push for meaningful change. Senator Lynn Ruane has worked for over two decades dealing with addiction services and policy. She believes that addiction is not an isolated response and has everything to do with its context.

“I won’t attempt to define addiction. What I will do is highlight what addiction, in many communities like mine, is. It most often is a response to trauma, deprivation, and inequality.”

Senator Lynn Ruane Photograph: Dave Meehan / The Irish Times

She recognises that “while addiction will be prevalent for some, most people across society that try illegal substances will not become addicted or need any intervention”. Whilst the government and the unending War on Drugs frame addiction as an inevitable outcome of recreational use, destructive behaviour is often a mixture of social circumstances and trauma.

“The person who uses the drug is using it to medicate themselves to not feel. People who have had considerable levels of trauma find it very hard to be present in their life and deal with those feelings,” says Gerard Roe, a long-running social worker and leader of Youth Workers Against Prohibition. “Although their drug abuse is harmful, it makes sense to them, to ease pain or get away from those feelings.”

Image: Youth Workers Against Prohibition

Roe explains that societal attitudes and state policy worsen the effects of addiction. A myriad of Acts, including the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Criminal Justice Act, criminalise users. Repeated cannabis possession risks a 12 month prison sentence, while those caught with personal possession of most other controlled substances can face up to 7 years.

“One of the negative long-term consequences of that is that that person is trapped in addiction which is worsened by our attitudes,” he says. “People are suffering. When you criminalise them you condemn them to a lifetime of social exclusion, criminality, addiction, or even death.”

Addiction may come with its own isolated harms, but the social exclusion and demonisation of drug users is condemning users to a life sentence.

“I have yet to meet a young person who has benefited from having a criminal conviction for being found with small possession of drugs. That’s game over for so many – it cuts off your chances to work, to get a visa, to travel, to get insurance.” 

Roe is quick to point out that people view addiction as an issue facing only drug users – a concept that relies on arbitrary ideas of morality.

“Addiction is a loaded term, but everyone’s addicted to something. We’ve just decided which addictions are moral and which are immoral.”

“When we consider addiction, we close our eyes and we just see a drug user, but there are many forms—addiction to sex, to gambling, to power. There are functional addicts—people who use cannabis every other day—and it doesn’t affect their quality of life. Can we call that harmful? Addiction is a loaded term, but everyone’s addicted to something. We’ve just decided which addictions are moral and which are immoral. It’s a tough pill to swallow that moral judgements based on popular opinion should ruin young lives.”

When discussing addiction and prejudice towards drug users, it’s vital to recognise the inherent connection to marginalised communities. For working-class people, PoC and other marginalised people, the term addict is often used as a derogatory dog-whistle for people that middle class Ireland deem immoral or beyond help. This attitude extends to our drug laws, which criminalise the working class far beyond their middle-class or professional counterparts.

“When a middle-class young fella is found with drugs, it’s seen as not an actual part of his life—he still has potential. When it’s someone from up the road in a disadvantaged community, he’s brought to the courts.

“People from marginalised groups or working-class backgrounds are bearing the brunt of our drug laws. Disproportionately, more people from these communities are criminalised. These are the ones who are filling up our jails,” explains Roe. “When a middle-class young fella is found with drugs, it’s seen as not an actual part of his life—he still has potential. When it’s someone from up the road in a disadvantaged community, he’s brought to the courts.”

This criminalisation is an outcome of repeatedly flawed government attitudes towards drugs. “I am saddened to say the state plays a poor role and has for decades. It has worked to disenfranchise community involvement and decision making at a local level and sought to centralise services,” says Senator Ruane. “It has actively stood over a failed Drugs Act and has made little progress in advancing options, care and rights for those who use drugs. I hope they reflect on the current situation on drugs in Ireland and do better, for all our sakes.”

Society rarely views the government as a villain in the lives of those with addiction issues. State intervention tends to focus on increased policing and carceral justice whilst support services and educational facilities are underfunded. Dominant narratives around addiction individualise the problem, insisting that the user’s so-called bad choices and peer groups are responsible. One sector that endures rampant misconceptions around drug use is the Irish clubbing and music scene.

Robbie Kitt is a DJ, promoter and recent participant on a panel discussing the recent ‘Start Low, Go Slow’ HSE campaign. He views the idea of clubbing and addiction as bedfellows as outdated and sees less of a pressure on club-goers to consume drugs in recent years.

Star Low, Go Slow. HSE /

“Maybe a few decades ago there might have been more pressure, but people don’t act like that anymore. A good example is around drinking. I rarely drink and a while back, people would come up to me and act like it’s a crazy thing. That question is not being asked anymore. People respect your autonomy and drugs are not as integral to the cultural scene as they were in the 90s and 00s.”

Kitt puts part of this down to the increased availability of information—however, he still acknowledges that there could be more information available.  

For Kitt, part of the lack of communication around addictions and drug abuse in the music and clubbing is a symptom of a broader issue around community structures.

“There are problems with our support networks and how we can support each other in a socially integrated way. I think about this a lot regarding therapy—not to criticise therapy in of itself, but therapy has emerged in society as this service that you pay for and that’s your needs addressed. When we keep these discussions in that box, and we don’t bring personal issues into social spaces, we aren’t critical or considerate about ourselves or others.”

In his eyes, nothing can change until “we have integrated mechanisms where we can discuss things in a non-judgemental way, where we’re not shaming each other for addictive behaviours”.

“We just don’t have those in Irish society.”

Separating alcohol from drugs in how we discuss addiction is a point of hypocrisy to Kitt, and our nation’s emotional and social reliance on alcohol is preventing us from building the care-based community structures we need to counteract issues like addiction.

“Across Ireland, alcohol has such a social monopoly. Places that sell alcohol are the primary locations of our social infrastructure. It’s how we express ourselves in terms of friendship and intimacy—we link everything to drink. We need to get to a place where it’s accepted to socially integrate care towards others. We have to be comfortable in naming and communicating when our friend’s behaviour is becoming harmful.” 

Counteracting the context and effects of addiction needs a two-fold approach. There is an urgent need to overhaul state laws that demonise and disenfranchise drug users. As well as that, a longer project of moving towards an inherently caring and supportive society is vital. In the former, campaigns like Roe’s Youth Workers Against Prohibition are trying to change minds and state policy.

Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Roe explains, “We fear things like cannabis legalisation just don’t go far enough. The only way you can take down gangs, and the violence and destruction [caused by drug addiction] in our homes, is to regulate and control drugs and treat it as a normal adult behaviour.” 

The organisation, which counts over 100 youth workers, activists and public figures in its ranks, is pushing for legalisation and regulation of drugs in society. Its aim is to prevent vulnerable people from getting into the hands of organised crime and to offer meaningful, criminalisation-free support to those with addiction issues.

“We favour evidence-based drug policies, drug treatment, and massive investment in communities that have withstood these harmful drug policies for the last 50 years,” explains Roe. In the campaign’s eyes, the state’s policies are causing “more harm than the drugs themselves” and nothing will improve until they’re abolished. 

We can build the social support systems we need by supporting this movement and by adopting a non-judgemental, anti-punitive approach to any of our peers who may struggle with addiction.

As Senator Ruane says, “Try not to blame the person for their addiction; no one chooses that. It’s a symptom of other issues and is often the self-medicating of trauma. Hanging on to empathy and practising acceptance can be crucial to someone not being isolated.”

If you or someone you love are struggling with addiction, freephone
HSE Drugs and Alcohol helpline on 1800 459 459.

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