With many questions being raised about the clogging of the courts with minor drug charges and the stigma surrounding drug use, Des Cook invesitages if Ireland would benefit from decriminalising drugs.
The problem of drugs in Ireland is not going away, and the reality is that under the government’s current strategy the issue is getting worse.
According to an All Ireland Drug Survey, between 2010 and 2015 use of ecstasy went up from 0.9% to 4.4%, with the overall use of any illegal drug among the general population increasing from 7% to 8.9% over the same time period. Apart from the damage done to drug user’s health, the crime that is financed by the sale of narcotics continues to worsen, with ten murders taking place in Dublin in the last two years as a result of the ongoing feud between the Hutch and Kinahan cartels.
Due to these grim statistics a change in the direction of Irish drug policy appears to be on the horizon. This July a new National Drugs Strategy was published by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and Minister of State for Drug Strategy Catherine Byrne. Included in it was a proposal to decriminalize the possession of drugs including heroin, cocaine, and cannabis for personal use.
“This proposal however would radically change Ireland’s drug policy bringing the country in line with the likes of Uruguay and Portugal.”
Dr Gillian W Shorter, an expert in addiction currently working in Ulster University, agreed with the proposal’s conclusion that Ireland’s current drug laws are flawed. “There’s an emphasis on criminal behaviour. [The current drug laws] are actually quite detrimental as they put people off getting treatment, getting the help that they need and seeking advice for harm reduction, which if you’ve decided you’re going to take drugs or you’re going to drink alcohol to excess is very harmful to yourself.” She added, “I think we forget that addiction affects everything, it’s never just about the drug or alcohol abuse, there’s always much more to it. I think the big thing we could do is take a much more health focused approach and invest more in addiction treatment services for the full range of use of substances.”
Ireland’s only previous experience with a radical change in drug policy came in March 2015 when due to a law being struck down as unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals, many drugs including magic mushrooms and ecstasy were temporarily made legal. While this event succeeded in raising Ireland’s profile on prolific media outlets such as LadBible, this legal quirk did not result in any great shift away from the long held belief that tougher laws resulted in less drug use.
This proposal of decrmininilsation would radically change Ireland’s drug policy bringing the country in line with the likes of Uruguay and Portugal. Dr Shorter was unequivocal in her stance on whether decriminalizing small possession charges would be beneficial.
“I certainly welcome anything that I think reduces the stigma of people who use drugs and it will save a lot of resources as well. I think it’s not going to be easy to implement, but obviously that’s why we have a government and we have a civil service, to help us implement these things, and I know it’s going to be difficult but taking that health approach rather than that criminal approach really will make a difference. It’ll help reduce stigma, it’ll help encourage people to get treatment, and we’ve seen from places like Portugal about where we might see some pitfalls, we can now anticipate those in advance.”
Since Portugal decriminalised the personal possession of all drugs in 2001 the results have been mixed. Drug use has declined among those aged 15-24, the group seen as most susceptible to initiating drug use. Despite this, lifetime use of drugs among the general population has actually increased slightly and the murder rate remains more or less the same as that of 2001. One area where the policy has succeeded is in improving the health of drug users. The number of newly diagnosed HIV cases among people who inject drugs has declined dramatically over the past decade, falling from 1,016 to 56 between 2001 and 2012.
“Gangland crime will not become redundant and drug use would continue to fund elicit international organizations.”
Bernie McDonnell, the Director of Services at Community Awareness of Drugs, had a different perspective on the issue to Dr. Shorter. “We in CAD are opposed to any moves to decriminalise drugs as we believe it would lead to increased use and increased problem use. We believe that the agencies currently helping those in addiction should receive increased resources to further extend their services.”
An important point to consider when discussing the proposal is that decriminalization is different to legalization. Those caught with drugs would still be able to be fined and assigned community service, similar to punishments for offences such as failing to wear a seatbelt. The selling and distribution of drugs would remain a criminal offence, meaning the trade would not become a regulated taxable industry in the vein of cannabis in the US state of Colorado. This means gangland crime will not become redundant and drug use would continue to fund elicit international organizations.
There is no clear way forward in terms of combatting the problem of addiction in Ireland, with clear differences of opinion among those involved in the issue. However, most agree that more funding for treatment and care is needed, but the debate as to whether decriminalizing drugs will improve the situation looks set to continue.