As US government officials grapple with the problem of opioid addiction, they may soon have a new approach to watch — on the other side of the Atlantic.
Ireland is out with an unorthodox new plan to combat drug abuse. To get heroin addicts off the street and into treatment, the country wants to make rooms available where users can inject the drug under medical supervision.
The proposal, spelled out by a government official in a speech on Monday, comes as part of a broader push that could potentially decriminalize all drugs in Ireland.
There’s not much mainstream support for that approach in the US, but officials at the federal, state, and local levels are trying out some new ideas.
States across the country are moving to strengthen their prescription drug monitoring programs. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker is pushing for a law that would generally limit a first-time opioid prescription to a 72-hour supply (which has been criticized by doctors who say it would interfere with their ability to help patients in pain.) And last month, the Obama administration announced limited measures to tackle prescription drugs and heroin abuse, focusing on providing more training for doctors and reviewing federal health plans to improve access to treatment.
But though political realities and demographics might differ, the two countries face drug abuse problems that have much in common. Here’s a brief look at how they compare:
More people are dying from opioids
Prescription painkiller deaths in the US rose about fourfold between 1999 and 2013. In Ireland, the problem is also rising, though not as starkly: opiate-related poisoning deaths increased nearly 70 percent from 2004 to 2012.
Heroin deaths in particular have increased at an alarming rate
In the US, the rate of people dying from heroin-related overdoses between 2002 and 2013 almost quadrupled. Compare that to Ireland, where the number of people who died from heroin in 2012 was double that of eight years prior, but down from its peak during the global financial crisis.
Even when they don’t kill, opioids are sending a lot of people to the hospital
Nearly 7,000 people daily in the US are treated in emergency departments for abusing or otherwise improperly using prescription painkillers. In Ireland, opiate users represented the vast majority of those hospitalized for narcotics or hallucinogenic drugs.
The criminal justice system plays different roles
In 2014, there were more than 4,000 heroin arrests by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Compare that to tiny Ireland, where the country’s drugs unit arrested just 60 people for trafficking heroin and other controlled drugs in 2014.
Addicts pay different prices for street heroin
In 2012, a gram of heroin purchased on the street in Ireland cost you $193, compared to a typical price of $12 to $31 in the US.