Jake O'Kane: The north's heroin problem is real, growing and needs tackling now

Largely ignored by our politicians who are more interested in arguing about language and flags, a generation of our young people are being lost to heroin

If addicts can't exchange needles then they'll dump them, with all the attendant dangers.

I'VE been out of the social scene in Belfast for well over a decade. With a young family and working a couple of jobs, my free time is spent at home, not in the many excellent bars or nightclubs which make Belfast one of the UK's top party towns. So, for someone like me to notice an increase in drug use indicates a real problem.

Recently, while walking close to the Albert Clock, I noticed a used syringe lying on the ground. Not knowing what to do, but afraid a child might find it and stick themselves, I gingerly lifted and deposited it the nearest bin. I then spent the rest of the day worried some unfortunate bin-man might injure himself.

But the penny finally dropped for me while waiting to collect a prescription from Boots on Belfast's Royal Avenue. I noticed a steady stream of dishevelled young people approach a small window to the side of the main counter; there, they were handed a small paper bag and left. I realised, this was one of the 21 needle exchanges operating throughout the north, although it's since closed due to antisocial behaviour and fears for staff safety.

While I don't believe the closure of the Boots exchange and me finding the syringe are linked, it's evident that if addicts can't exchange needles then they'll dump them, with all the attendant dangers.

There were more than 30,000 visits to Northern Ireland's needle exchanges in 2017/18, indicating that intravenous drug is increasing exponentially. Largely ignored by our politicians who are more interested in arguing about language and flags, a generation of our young people are being lost to heroin.

Last week, The Irish News highlighted this issue with the story of Mater Hospital A&E consultant Dr Aisling Diamond. Having experienced a dramatic spike in overdoses, she believes heroin has 'got hold' of communities and education on the impact of drug abuse should begin at primary school.

Those who'd argue against doing so as it robs children of their innocence should consider: which is more precious, innocence or life? We must give children the hard facts regarding drugs and how taking them will affect them both physically and psychologically. Show them pictures of individuals at the beginning and end of their drug-taking journey – such images will have more impact than a thousand censorious words.

Nobody should presume drugs endanger only a particular type of person. Addiction is no respecter of class, colour, creed or intellect; its victims come from the leafy suburbs as well as the inner city, and heroin is now as much a problem in rural areas as it is in Belfast or Dublin. The time for complacency is over, and we all need to waken to the poison on our streets.

While the police have an essential part to play, we need to be realistic; drug abuse will never be defeated via the criminal justice system alone. We must recognise the difference between the drug user, who is ill, and the drug dealer, who is evil.

I have no problem seeing the full weight of the law fall upon the vermin, sitting in mansions peddling poison to other people's children. I would argue, however, that sending a drug user to prison is akin to sending an alcoholic to live in a brewery.

The tragic story reported on the front page of this paper on Wednesday about 21-year-old Aaron Connor, who died of a heroin overdose the day after being released from prison, illustrates this reality.

If we aren't going to offer addicts the help needed to get off drugs, then I believe we have a moral responsibility to provide 'fixing rooms' with trained staff on hand to deal with the inevitable overdoses. Such 'fixing rooms' have dramatically reduced drug deaths in many countries, including Denmark and Canada.

In the 78 such rooms operating in Europe, not one death has occurred, as nurses present quickly administered antidotes and resuscitate before calling an ambulance.

We desperately need a paradigm shift around drug abuse and how to deal with it. As a society, we need to stop marginalising and stigmatising drug addicts and redefine users as sick rather than criminal. Only when we invest in treatment rather than imprisonment will we have any lasting impact on drug abuse.

Of course, prevention is better than a cure. So, if you are a parent, take a moment and look up online the many valuable resources for broaching the subject, then have that chat with your child.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access