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Criminalising drug use is 'disastrous' waste of time and money, expert to tell Justice Committee

Dr Garrett McGovern believes Ireland should take a health-led approach to drugs and decriminalise personal use.

PERSONAL USE OF drugs such as cannabis should be decriminalised, an expert in addiction studies will tell the Oireachtas Justice Committee today.

Dr Garrett McGovern, a GP specialising in addiction medicine, believes prohibition of illegal drugs simply does not work.

Ireland’s current drug policy criminalises people unnecessarily and makes it difficult for those with addiction issues to seek help, he will argue today.

McGovern is one of several stakeholders due to speak at a meeting of the Oireachtas Justice Committee this afternoon as part of a discussion on the country’s current approach to sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use.

Speaking to The Journal ahead of his appearance, McGovern said he does not believe that decriminalising drugs will solve all of Ireland’s problems but the current model of prohibition and criminalisation clearly does not work.

“I don’t think for one minute that decriminalisation, or even legalisation, is going to sort out the drug problem in this country. But most people now know that criminalising people who use drugs is disastrous, really. It costs an awful lot of money, it causes a lot of stigma and it doesn’t stop people using drugs.”

McGovern said some people still hold the over-simplistic view that drugs are bad and therefore must be banned.

When discussing the issue with people who hold this stance, he said he always asks them one question: “What can you tell me about prohibition, or criminalising people, that has worked?”

He continued: “They never give me the answer. They don’t even say ‘it teaches people a lesson’ because they know it doesn’t – people keep using drugs.”

Addiction vs box-ticking

McGovern helps people with genuine addiction issues but also has to meet people who are sent to him because they were found with a small amount of a drug such as cannabis – even if they have no addiction whatsoever; he said it’s just a ‘box-ticking’ exercise as part of their probation.

McGovern said this is a waste of time and money, and takes an appointment away from a person who is actually addicted to drugs and needs his help.

I see people in the course of my work that don’t have an addiction to anything, they were just caught with a small amount of something and were sent out to me. It’s laughable, they come and see me and they don’t meet the criteria for dependents. I’m thinking, ‘what a waste of money’. Somebody’s paying for this, it’s a complete waste of money.

McGovern said people who are against the decriminalisation of drugs should acknowledge that the current approach is not working.

“We live in a paradigm where drugs are prohibited. So if people think that this is working, then they have to concede that what they think is working is occurring in a paradigm of illegal drugs. We don’t have legalisation so whatever the problems are in Ireland in relation to illicit drugs, you can’t blame them on legalisation or decriminalisation.

“People need to realise that there are people coming to great harm as a result of the current drugs policy. There is great stigma, in some cases it affects people’s ability to get jobs. And it’s costing the State an awful lot of money to police through courts and probation services and treatment services.”

McGovern said some politicians are not aware of the urgency of improving the country’s drug policy because they do not see the effects of addiction in their own constituencies.

“The politicians who are really strong on this, like Lynn Ruane and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, understand it because they’ve seen it firsthand in their own communities. But a lot of people just don’t live in that world, they’re not exposed to that.

“They live a very sheltered existence and when you’re living a sheltered existence, there’s an element of ‘let them at it’. There’s a snobbery to it, it’s almost kind of like a social apartheid because there is this idea of ‘that’s their world, we don’t worry have to about it’.”


McGovern has been vocal about his belief that Ireland should eventually regulate and tax cannabis, for example, but said this “won’t happen in my lifetime”.

Instead, he is pushing for decriminalisation. He said such a model is not perfect, but it could make a positive difference in the lives of many people.

McGovern is among those working in addiction services who believe Ireland could consider adopting the model used in Portugal, where drug use was decriminalised in 2001.

Since then a person caught with a small amount of drugs generally receives a warning or a small fine. In some cases, they are referred to a doctor or social worker to discuss harm reduction and addiction issues.

McGovern said the Portuguese model is “not perfect” but it has resulted in a number of big improvements – notably a large drop in overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, and drug-related crime and incarceration rates.

He said some people view decriminalisation of drugs as a “slippery slope” to full legalisation but in Portugal, for example, that hasn’t happened.

“Portugal didn’t legalise drugs, nor have they any intention of legalising drugs. So there’s this idea that we would be forced to eventually legalise drugs if we do decriminalise them. That’s not true.

“So we can learn an awful lot from Portugal, but we’ve decided not to learn anything from them. We’ve decided to continue to plough money into this kind of strategy that doesn’t work.”

Time for action

Aside from exploring decriminalisation, and potentially legalisation, McGovern said real change won’t happen in Ireland unless people’s attitudes to drug use change.

“It’s also attitudinal. It’s cultural. It’s socio-economical. There are so many layers to it, it’s not just about regulation.”

McGovern said Ireland has made great strides in recent years in putting drug policy firmly on the social agenda. However, many promised initiatives are yet to materialise.

For example, legislation was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins in May 2017 to open the country’s first medically-supervised injecting centre. However, over five years later, this facility remains mired in red tape and has yet to open.

There was also the promise of a Citizens’ Assembly on drug use this year. However, in February The Journal broke the news that this initiative will be postponed until 2023.

At the time, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who previously served as drugs minister, said the delay would cost lives.

McGovern told us it’s all well and good “to say you want things” but the Government must actually follow through in terms of improving policy and services.

“I see no reason why we can’t change our drug policies, and evaluate the change. I don’t think you should have decriminalisation and not evaluate it. We can make change, we can do research into it and get statistics, we can start to see whether it works.

“I would accept straight away if things were getting worse, that we would have to change the approach. But I see on a daily basis that criminalising people for taking drugs does not work – it just causes stigma and doesn’t stop people from taking drugs.”

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