The misuse of drugs is one of the gravest problems confronting the world today. It has destroyed, debased and diminished many lives. A sense of helplessness is often manifest among its victims, their family and the communities in which they live. Our Holy Father has rightly called it “an insidious social plague”.

In Ireland, the problem of drug abuse has reached serious proportions in many of our communities, both urban and rural. Many families suffer grievously because one of their member’s abuse of drugs.

I need hardly labour the point: the misuse of drugs can be very bad for the abuser, for his or her family, for their communities, for society and for the future of our young people.

The policy document I launch today on behalf of the Irish Bishops’ Conference is another step in a process, which we initiated in the summer of 1996. We began by recognising that the Church, the people of God, has a responsibility to play its part in trying to tackle the problem of drug abuse.

To try to discover how the Church could most effectively make that contribution, we consulted widely. Views were sought from many agencies and groups with practical and professional experience in the treatment of substance abuse. As a result, it became clear that the key concept that should underscore the Church’s contribution is “partnership”. Partnership, especially, with those in the voluntary and statutory sector who have been engaged in the arduous work of healing and rehabilitation for many years. They have cared generously for the broken. Their work has not always received the public acknowledgement it deserves.

When we issued our pastoral statement, Breaking the Silence in the spring of 1997, we saw it as a call to the Christian community to play its full part in confronting the drug crisis. Jesus himself said that he had come “that you may have life and have it to the full”. As Christians we believe that there is a meaning to life which is stronger than any of the things which frighten us.

We outlined three practical ways in which the Christian community could give expression to that belief in the context of drug abuse. The key words of our policy continue to be inform, support, and act.

Firstly, to inform ourselves about the nature of substance abuse, its effects on those who abuse and on their families and communities. The Church, through its network of parishes, is ideally placed to spread the word on this. By making information about the nature and effects of drugs easily accessible through parishes, the Church has tried to help people come to a better understanding. Knowledge is the first step in prevention.

Secondly, in our parishes and communities we should support and make better known the services that are available for people who need help. Our policy on drugs is not to replace what is already being done by others, but to support their efforts.

Thirdly, we must reach out to those hurt by drugs and addiction. We must remember who these people are. Some we have gone to school with, some we have worked with, and some are our friends. All are our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. If we don’t welcome them, who will?

Our policy document, Tackling Drug Problems Together, confirms and consolidates the strategy of informing, supporting and acting which we outlined in Breaking the Silence. By setting down the guidelines detailed in this policy document, we are reaffirming our commitment, and that of the Church, to playing our part in helping to tackle problem drug-use in our society.

By the term ‘drugs’ we include any substance, legal or illegal, which alters a person’s physiology, perception, mood or feelings. We do this advisedly. Alcohol, for example, is often thought of as a benign substance and, for most drinkers it is. Yet, it is a striking fact that alcohol causes more problems for young people and for families than any other drug available in Ireland.

That is why our policy emphasises the importance of preparing young people in school for a world in which many of them will drink alcohol. We would also want, for example, to encourage alcohol-free options for young people.

Our policy statement emphasises prevention, because this, in the practical sense, is the responsibility of us all. We want to encourage schools, through educational and prevention programmes, to focus on what can be done to avert problems in the first place.

Our policy recognises that the phenomenon of drug use is a rapidly changing one and any policies will have to be reviewed and updated at least every two years. It is our intention to identify each year a priority issue regarding drugs.

For the coming year we have chosen to focus on education and prevention. The Church has considerable influence in the education sphere and we particularly ask that it uses that influence at Board of Management level to encourage educational programmes in schools. We also want to encourage the development of supports for parents in how they can develop skills in promoting prevention at home.

Finally, I want to thank the Network for the Prevention of Drug Problems. which is established in all dioceses for helping us to formulate the proposals in this policy statement. The people involved in the Network are knowledgeable and committed and many are professionally involved in various aspects of drugs awareness, treatment and prevention.

The Network will continue in existence until at least the end of next year and the fact that the bishops will continue to provide funding for secretarial service and for co-ordination of the Network until then, affirms our commitment to supporting the Network.

I am happy and privileged to launch this initiative. I do so in a hopeful and confident spirit. The hope is that it will empower people to find their own solutions by availig of all the resources already there and, where necessary, by devising new strategies. People in the grip of addiction need to be awakened to hope. The Christian community is the instrument of God in this awakening and in bringing what help they can to their sister or brother in need.