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Should we stop bringing criminal charges against those possessing drugs for personal use?

It’s important to consider what is meant by ‘decriminalisation’.

Tony Duffin

RECENTLY, A DELEGATION from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality visited Lisbon to examine the impact that the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal has had over recent years. Following on from this visit the Committee has invited submissions regarding Ireland’s approach to the possession of limited quantities of certain drugs.

What might taking this approach mean in an Irish context?

As a starting point, it’s important to consider what is meant by ‘decriminalisation’. Simply put, decriminalisation refers to a situation whereby certain drug related offences are no longer dealt with under the criminal law. So, for example, as the law stands in Ireland, it’s illegal to possess certain substances pursuant to section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977. If that offence were to be removed, simple possession would be decriminalised – it would no longer be a criminal offence. It’s important to note that just because something is not a criminal offence doesn’t mean it’s legal. The behaviour can still be sanctioned, it just doesn’t get dealt with as a criminal justice issue.

Prohibition doesn’t work

This is the case in Portugal – instead of facing criminal sanctions, people found in possession of drugs for their personal use face administrative measures instead. They are brought before a ‘Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction’, regional panels made up of legal, health and social work professionals. The Commission can implement a range of sanctions, from fines for those engaging in recreational drug use to the development of tailored care plans for those with more entrenched issues.

If this seems like a cop-out, that’s only because we’re currently looking at it from within the prevailing paradigm – that drug use is evil and is to be prevented at all costs. This, of course, is incorrect. In implementing drug policy, the focus should not be on conquering what is perceived as a moral wrong, but on how best to limit the harm that drug use causes to society.

Pursuing a prohibitionist agenda has been the prevailing global policy approach for the last half a century, and the evidence is clear – it enjoys the twin distinctions of being both expensive and ineffective. In 2014, the London School of Economics released a report on the ‘War on Drugs’. Its conclusions are signed up to by a host of international experts, including five Nobel Laureates. And it concludes that the prevailing global prohibitionist policy has, “failed based on its own terms”.

What is the evidence?

So, what should we do? As with any public policy, we should follow the best available evidence. What works in relation to drug policy? Well, the Portuguese experience with decriminalisation is instructive. As the report of the Oireachtas Committee notes, a number of outcomes were reported to the delegation, including that there has been:

  • A reduction in HIV cases
  • No increase in drug consumption
  • A decrease in crime directly related to drug addiction
  • A change in how drug consumers are perceived (ie, not as criminals)

These are indeed the types of outcomes experienced in Portugal, although it is important to note that such effects are probably not just a function of decriminalisation.
And, realistically, this is the nub of the matter. There is no ‘silver bullet’ for drug use. It is complex, and linked to a range of other social issues. It often evokes reactions that are polarised, which is unhelpful in an area where we need to be realistic and find common ground. The reality is drug use is a problem to be managed, not solved, and we need to work together to do it.

However, this does not mean that society should advocate or condone drug use either – we need not to lose sight of the fact that not using drugs at all is safer than using drugs. The challenge is to find a balance that is right for our country – and that balance should be one which minimises harm, maximises opportunities for those with problems and maximises value to the taxpayer. In this construct, decriminalisation is certainly a policy approach that should be given serious consideration, and I welcome the Committee’s call for submissions.

Tony Duffin is the Director Ana Liffey Drug Project. Visit www.aldp.ie to find out more about the work of the Ana Liffey. Follow the Ana Liffey on facebook.com/AnaLiffey and at twitter.com/AnaLiffey

The report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is available here, and if you’re interested in making a submission, the guidelines are here.

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