London (AFP) - Ireland aims to become the latest European nation to introduce supervised heroin injecting rooms in a radical overhaul of its approach to substance abuse, the country's drugs minister said on Monday.
Aodhan O Riordain, the minister with responsibility for drugs strategy, told AFP that the government was planning for the legislation to allow such rooms to be enacted by the first quarter of next year.
"It will effectively mean a diplomatic immunity to inject heroin in a safe, secure, passionate environment," he said.
"It will limit the dangers of contracting HIV and Hepatitis C and also takes away the street injecting phenomenon," he told AFP.
The first centre is to be opened in Dublin next year, said the minister, who was taking part in a policy seminar at the London School of Economics on Monday.
If introduced as planned, Ireland will follow similar models already in place in Australia and parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland in an effort to manage risk associated with intravenous drug users.
"Essentially people come, they bring in their own material but they are provided with a medically supervised space," O Riordain said.
The minister also said he wanted a "cultural shift" and a "national conversation" in Ireland on decriminalising small amounts of drugs for personal use, following the example set by Portugal.
As a former school principal in Dublin's north inner city, where there is a severe heroin problem, O Riordain said he was acutely aware of the devastating consequences of drug abuse.
Portugal has considered drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal one since it decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use in 2001.
"It's my intention to start a national conversation to move us towards the Portuguese model with decriminalisation across the board which I think is the proper way we should go," O Riordain said.
"We're trying to change the entire context in which we discuss this issue from a moralistic one to one which is actually much more realistic and compassionate," he said.
Decriminalisation is unlikely to be seriously considered until after a general election due to be held by April next year.