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Opinion: 'Ireland could lead the way in developing new human-centred approaches to drug use'

I am delighted to see this government’s commitment to properly evaluate how decriminalisation could work in an Irish context, writes Dr John Collins.

Dr John Collins Executive Director, LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project

YEARS AGO IRELAND established itself as a leader in public health policy. The evidence around the damage of second-hand smoke was clear.

The lobbying working to prevent any change in regulation was strong, yet with political leadership Ireland established itself as the first nation in the world which banned smoking in the workplace. Others soon followed.

Fast forward to 2016, where international progress on marriage equality often surfaced from constitutional challenges forcing national legislative change. Ireland took a pioneering course and held a public referendum to decide the issue.

A public health issue

Now Ireland is at another crossroads. Debates globally have shifted towards the recognition that drugs and drug dependence should be treated as a public health rather than criminal justice issue and that criminalisation has a detrimental impact on basic human rights.

The evidence meanwhile has grown increasingly clear. As numerous academic and government reports have highlighted, there is no evidence that repressive approaches to drug consumption have any impact on usage rates. Or to put it another way, there is no evidence that the current policy produces the desired outcome.

There is, however, a wide body of research highlighting that criminalisation of vulnerable populations serves only to further marginalise them. It pushes them to undertake more dangerous activities, such as sharing syringes or injecting in alleyways, and prevents them from accessing much needed health and social services which could help them to improve and often gain control of their lives.

Meanwhile it absorbs and wastes police time through dealing with low-level actors, and generates a barrier between individuals and public services. In other words, criminalisation is itself expensive and makes other social service interventions less accessible to those most in need and thereby more expensive for the State to provide.

Lessons to learn from Portugal example

It is for these reasons and more that international bodies such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, the UN Development Programme and expert bodies such as the Lancet Commission on Drug Policy have openly advocated the decriminalisation of drug consumers. Many countries have pursued this policy approach, either in practice or in the law.

Portugal is the most famous example of a country that removed all criminal sanctions for drug possession around 2000. Subsequently use rates declined while the harms associated with drug use fell drastically.

Although it is too simplistic to draw a straight line between decriminalisation and the positive outcomes witnessed in Portugal, decriminalisation is widely recognised as the glue that held together a broader policy framework based on public health, human rights and individual dignity.

Although the Portuguese model cannot simply be transplanted into Ireland, there are many lessons to learn from its success.

Current policy is counterproductive

Firstly, criminalisation of consumers has no place in a modern, evidence-based and human centred drug policy. Secondly, the success of drug policy depends on the successful coordination of various low-threshold social services targeting at risk populations.

Again, there is a fundamental incoherence between the State providing such social services while raising barriers to accessing them through criminalising the very populations they are intended to reach.

Third, there is a big distinction between decriminalisation and legalisation. The former centres on the penalties the State imposes on low level consumers so that they can better access treatment services and avoid needless and harmful criminal records.

The latter centres on whether the State allows the sale and supply of drugs for recreational use.

A human-centred approach

There is little debate at the academic level that the current approach to drug policy is often more counterproductive than helpful. Given this recognition it is important that countries such as Ireland lead the way in developing new human-centred approaches to these complex social problems.

As with the smoking ban, when innovations prove successful, others are sure to follow. I am delighted to see this government’s commitment to properly evaluate how decriminalisation could work in an Irish context.

We at LSE, in partnership with the Ana Liffey Drug Project, have already begun examining how decriminalisation could work by learning lessons from overseas jurisdictions and translating them to fit the specific needs of Ireland.

As with the smoking ban and marriage equality referendum, Ireland has the chance, once again, to show itself as a leader in social and health policy reforms globally. If it accepts this chance it will likely look back with pride at another advance towards the principles of pragmatism, fair play and human equality that were so engendered by the marriage equality vote.

Decriminalisation of drug consumers is firmly on the political agenda. Let us hope it becomes part of the political reality soon.

Dr John Collins is Executive Director, LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, the London School of Economic (LSE).

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About the author:

Dr John Collins  / Executive Director, LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project

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