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'It does not make sense': Concerns over reports that Government will continue to criminalise drug use

A working group on drug possession is expected to report to the Government in coming weeks.

Image: Shutterstock/Tinnakorn jorruang

COMMUNITY GROUPS HAVE expressed concerns over suggestions that the Government will continue to treat personal drug use as a criminal issue.

A working group is currently studying alternative approaches to the criminalisation of drug use, after its appointment by Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne.

It had been expected that the group would recommend the introduction of legislation to decriminalise drugs for personal use.

A 2015 report by the Oireachtas Justice Committee recommended the measure, which campaigners had anticipated following the publication of the National Drugs Strategy in 2017.

However, there have been unconfirmed reports that the working group will recommend the introduction of a so-called ‘diversion programme’ instead, under which the criminalisation of drug use will continue.

Executive director of Release, Niamh Eastwood, says that while diversion programmes recognise the importance of access to health services, they continue to criminalise drug users.

“It does not make sense to say that, yes, we know treatment and support services are the best way to go, but we will define people as criminals first and foremost,” she said.

“The evidence shows that treating people who use drugs as criminals increases the health and social risks associated with drug use… and a police diversion scheme will do little to mitigate these risks and barriers.”

Under a diversion programme, individuals found in possession of drugs are sent to rehabilitation or given a street warning the first time they are caught, allowing them to avoid a criminal record.

However, those found in possession of drugs on subsequent occasions may receive fines or a criminal conviction, depending on the number of times they are caught.

A ‘three-strike’ system for cannabis possession currently operates in the United Kingdom, where users are given a street warning the first time they are caught, but can be fined and arrested if they are caught three times.

Eastwood also suggested that the cannabis diversion programme in the UK disproportionately affected minorities, adding that the measure showed a “lack of political will” to deal with drug use.

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Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, claimed that it is important that Ireland takes the opportunity to decriminalise drugs in light of the health-led approach of the new National Drugs Strategy.

“As a country, we have a real opportunity to say unequivocally that drug use is a health issue,” he said.

“Criminalising simple possession does not reduce the harm associated with drug use – it adds to it.

“We need to create a system in which there is no route to criminal conviction for personal drug use alone.”

The working group is expected to submit its report to the Government in coming weeks.

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