THE LAST YEAR has seen Ireland make huge strides in how we think about drug policy. As we face into an uncertain political future in Ireland, it is important that we maintain this momentum and keep driving towards policies that work.
This is particularly true in 2016 as our own National Drug Strategy only runs to the end of the year, and as global drug policy is considered at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. Regardless of the composition of the incoming government, there are a few key messages we can keep focused on.
The ‘War on Drugs’ is over
The way that we have historically addressed drugs and drug use globally has been an expensive failure. It is now widely recognised that drugs and drug use are not discrete issues to be ‘solved’ by criminal justice mechanisms. Rather, much more benefit and value can be accrued from having a health focus, which is why the London School of Economics have called for a massive global shift from criminal justice spending to health spending.
The simple reality is that the primary reason we spend money on the criminal justice side is supply control. We want dealers off the street, which means that there are less drugs available for sale, price will go up and demand will go down, shrinking the size of the market. The problem is that it doesn’t work like that.
The UNODC estimates that only 3% of pure heroin that is imported into Ireland is seized. Our best efforts have only a temporary impact on price and availability, and consequently do not significantly affect either supply or demand in the market.
This is not to say we shouldn’t try to control supply or have sanctions for those that deal in illegal substances, merely that the way we are currently addressing these issues is ineffective and expensive.
A Health Focus
As an example, in our zeal to criminalise dealing so we can control supply, we have also criminalised those who use drugs. It is not only an offence to possess for the purposes of supply, but also just to possess for personal use.
Criminalising possession in this way does not really discourage use – rates of problematic drug use in societies are largely independent of a simple criminalise / decriminalise variable – but it does have repercussions.
It disproportionately impacts on people from poorer areas, it acts as a barrier to future employment for people convicted, and permits negative stereotyping of drug users. It’s easy to label someone a criminal in this way, but this doesn’t solve anything.
This is why grassroots community organisations like Citywide have been outspoken in their calls for the decriminalisation of possession. It is also why a Joint Oireachtas Committee – with cross party and cross house membership – also concluded that possession for personal use was best dealt with outside the ambit of the criminal law.
However, not only have we criminalised those who use drugs, but also potentially those who work with people who use drugs. Our current laws contain a range of permissive offences – so for example, not only is it a crime to possess drugs, but it is a crime to permit someone else to possess or use drugs on your premises.
Naturally, this has a negative effect on how services can engage with drug users. Dublin has a serious problem with public injecting; but services cannot yet be established which can deal with this issue off the street, despite overwhelming evidence of their efficacy in terms of health benefits, cost effectiveness and role they play in supporting people to access treatment.
Finally, even where the focus is on health, we don’t always get it right – we equate health with ‘drug free’ and ‘abstinent’ and ‘recovered’. These are noble goals, but are not realistic for all people at all times.
Our residential services aim, in large part, to provide services to those that stand the best chance of being drug free further down the line.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – residential treatment is expensive, after all, and everyone wants positive outcomes – but we need to be clear that the entry criteria for residential services are often set up to exclude those who are most in need – the polydrug users, the people with comorbid mental health issues, the people living in chaos.
If we accept that abstinence is the only worthwhile goal, we exclude these people. I often hear people say things like ‘Well, people need to take responsibility for their situation. They can either choose to get better, or they can die”. To those people, the answer is – they do die. One person a day dies from overdose in Ireland.
Every week, seven families face the future without a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a father, a mother. It doesn’t have to be this way – many overdose deaths are preventable. Equally, there is much that can be done through residential stabilisation care for those most in need.
Evidence and Leadership
Ultimately, drug policy is about two things – what works; and what is acceptable to people. Sometimes what works feels counterintuitive and we initially find it unacceptable as a result.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. We’ve all heard people oppose progressive drug policy with puritanical, moralistic and populist messages. These messages are good from a communications perspective – they are simple for people to understand, make sense at first glance and can serve as a call to action.
They are also overly simplistic and very rarely based in evidence. Thus, there is a divergence between evidence and attitude. To bridge it, and to implement drug policy reform requires individual leadership at the highest level.
In Ireland, we have been fortunate in the last year that we have had a Minister, in Aodhán O‘Ríordáin, who was willing to champion progressive drug policy, supporting calls from organisations such as Citywide for a discussion on decriminalisation and from ourselves and others for the implementation of Medically Supervised Injecting Centres.
Both initiatives have broad support from across the political spectrum, as well as from a wide range of community stakeholders.
It is important now that, whatever the structure of the incoming government that this momentum is maintained. Our current drug strategy only runs to the end of 2016, and a process to put in place a new one is underway.
We have an opportunity to be brave in implementing drug policy which works, which will save the taxpayer money and which will deliver the best value to people accessing those services.
To achieve this, it is essential to ensure that Ireland has a Minister with Responsibility for Drugs. Without that national leadership the drugs issue will most likely continue unabated.
There will continue to be unsafe disposal of drug paraphernalia and people injecting in terrible conditions; there will continue to be people unable to access residential treatment because, ironically, of their drug use; there will continue to be avoidable deaths every week; there will continue to be families and communities devastated by debt and death. It doesn’t have to be this way; by continuing on the path the outgoing minister has set, we can develop solutions for Ireland that will make a real difference.
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