Home > Responding to drug-related public nuisance.

Connolly, Johnny (2006) Responding to drug-related public nuisance. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 17, Spring 2006, p. 17.

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Drug-related public nuisance, although not a new phenomenon, is one which is attracting increased attention across the EU according to a report published by the EMCDDA as part of its annual report for 2005.1 In a special focus on the topic Drug-related public nuisance – trends in policy and preventive measures, the EMCDDA highlights the elusive nature of the topic. Drug-related public nuisance is recognised as a catch-all concept relating to a range of deviant behaviours, from crimes to breaches of social norms and values, from minor acts of deviance to activities which can cause extreme distress and misery to people.

Identifying a common definition is further complicated as perception of public nuisance is influenced by levels of societal tolerance for certain behaviours. Also, feelings of fear and insecurity are not strictly proportional to objectively established levels of criminality and nuisance. For example, although most countries report significantly higher levels of public harms associated with alcohol, concerns about alcohol are eclipsed by perceptions of a drug problem. The media is identified as having a significant influence in forming and distorting public perceptions in this respect.

The most commonly reported drug-related nuisance activities include public drug taking; public injecting; obvious drug-related intoxication; street dealing and crime committed under the influence of drugs; discarded injecting equipment; open drug scenes; vulnerability of children to addicts and drug dealers and intrusive verbal exchanges with drug users and dealers. The report also considers the genesis of drug-related nuisance throughout the EU and the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of measuring its incidence and societal impact. The various legislative and policy responses are also considered. General public order legislation is the key approach to drug-related public nuisance taken by many countries. The elimination of open drug scenes also receives a lot of attention.

Many of the responses to drug-related nuisance share common characteristics. Integrated, inter-agency approaches incorporate prevention, repression and assistance to drug users. Underlying such approaches is the notion that, as the problem of nuisance includes so many different types of behaviour, the range of responses must be equally broad. Equally important is the recognition of the importance of grounding solutions in the local community. Consequently, many responses are steered by, or established in collaboration with, local community groups.

An interesting finding of the report is that, although harm-reduction initiatives such as drop-in centres, needle-exchange schemes and drug consumption rooms are often perceived as contributing to the causes of public nuisance and are opposed on those grounds, in some countries they have been introduced to counter such issues – and with some success. Despite initial resistance to such harm-reduction initiatives in many countries, the report states that such resistance ‘is often followed by a normalisation in the relationships between the community and the professionals involved. The reason for this change in attitude may be linked to the fact that such interventions contribute to the reduction of public nuisance in the area in which they are located’ (p. 19).

The indicators used to measure the level of success of interventions include opinion polls, victim surveys and ethnographic studies, although it is reported that ‘comprehensive and overarching evaluations of an entire public nuisance policy or strategy, even in countries which have such a strategy, are quite rare’ (p. 21).

Although drug-related nuisance is not a new phenomenon, what may be new is the growing concern about it nationally and internationally. The question is raised as to whether this reflects a change in the incidence of the phenomenon, or a lessening of tolerance. With regard to the latter, the report raises a note of caution and suggests that concerns as to community security rights must be balanced against individual rights.

The diversity of approaches taken in response to drug-related public nuisance may, it is suggested, reflect the shapelessness of its definition. It is concluded therefore that further conceptual work is required, particularly with regard to establishing a common definition of the phenomenon. In conclusion, the report identifies a general shift in emphasis of EU national drug control policies away from simply reducing use of drugs to targeting drug-related behaviours that impact negatively on the community. Similarly, it also identifies a growing interest in links between drugs and driving and the use of drugs in the workplace. The report identifies a trend throughout the EU which de-emphasises criminal punishment of the individual user, specially for simple possession of drugs for personal use: ‘It appears as if criminal sanctions have been reduced (particularly imprisonment) for the individual user in a private setting but increased for behaviours and situations that are public or that may affect community or society as a whole’.

1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2005) Annual report 2005: selected issues. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

A copy of the EMCDDA annual report for 2005 can be obtained from the National Documentation Centre on Drug Use. An electronic copy of the Irish submission, 2005 National Report (2004 data) to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, Ireland: new developments, trends and in-depth information on selected issues, is available on the Drugs in Ireland section of the NDC website.  

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 17, Spring 2006
January 2006
Page Range
p. 17
Health Research Board
Issue 17, Spring 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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