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Public Health

Drug decriminalisation policy 'could help with criminal and social issues', Irish report finds

Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal penalties for possession of drugs for personal use.

A REPORT ON efforts to decriminalise drugs in Ireland and four other jurisdictions has concluded that advances have been made in recent years but there is a lack of political will in Ireland.

The report by the Scottish Drugs Forum also claimed that the success of the marriage equality and abortion referendums have aided efforts for decriminalisation by opening discussion on more socially progressive topics.

‘Working to decriminalise people who use drugs‘ was funded by Ireland’s Ana Liffey Drug Project and looked at the push for decriminalisation in Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Poland and the US state of Maine.

The report was critical of Irish politicians for allowing drug reform to be “kicked into the long grass” but said that the openness of some politicians was aiding the cause of decriminalisation.

“Ireland made progress towards decriminalisation in 2015, when the Minister for drugs declared himself in favour of decriminalisation,” the report read.

This referred to Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, then a junior minister, who gave a speech in which he said he supported the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs.

The report credited this statement with generating a shift in public debate and bringing momentum towards the idea that drug use “should not be treated as a criminal issue”.

Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal penalties for possession of drugs for personal use.

It also hailed the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs as a form of progress, noting that “similar approaches were instrumental for issues around LGBTQ issues and abortion rights”.

The Labour TD was mentioned again in the report, due to his support of supervised injection centres.

The country’s first medically supervised injection facility (MSIF) was granted approval in late 2022 to open for an initial period of 18 months in Dublin city centre, years after the Misuse of Drugs Act 2017 was enacted.

The report refereed to delays caused by High Court appeals and An Bord Pleanala as “planning bureaucracy” and said that the major barrier stopping Ireland from enacting decriminalisation was indifference from public representatives.

“One barrier identified was a lack of political will to implement more radical solutions,
such as drug consumption rooms, which had failed to gain planning permission then
subsequently been ‘kicked into the long grass’ by the majority party because there is
not much political capital in advocating for decriminalisation.”

Social change

The CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, Tony Duffin, welcomed the report and called for further action on decriminalisation.

“Criminalising possession of drugs for personal use disproportionately impacts on people
from deprived areas, it acts as a barrier to future opportunities for people convicted, and
permits negative stereotyping of people who use drugs.”

“It’s easy to label someone a criminal in this way, but this doesn’t solve anything. There is good evidence that decriminalisation is a policy option that can help to address these issues and have improved outcomes for people who use drugs; their families, their communities and wider society,” he said.

Duffin continued: “Of course, in this regard, a very welcome development within Ireland’s national drug strategy, ‘Reducing Harm – Supporting Recovery’, is the inclusion of a Health Diversion Programme for those found in possession of drugs for personal use. ”

Under this new approach - on the first occasion, An Garda Síochána will refer the person, on a mandatory basis, to the Health Service Executive for a health screening and brief intervention; and on the second occasion, An Garda Síochána will have discretion to issue an Adult Caution.”

Among the key strategies for political change discussed in ‘Working to decriminalise people who use drugs’, was the importance of “framing decriminalisation as part of a public health approach” and using clear terminology.

The report interviewed experts in decriminalisation from the five studied jurisdictions, as well as international scholars, with one Irish participant stating:

“When I say decriminalisation, one person will say ‘oh that’s legalisation, right?’ and I say well no.”

“I’m actually not talking about substances, I’m talking about the person, I’m talking about decriminalisation of the person.”

The report noted how Portugal, where drugs are decriminalised, is an often-used example of how decriminalisation would work in practice.

However, interviewees emphasised that the Portuguese model is not simply decriminalisation, but also includes a health diversion programme for drug users.

A 2021 study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that Poland had the 4th highest overdose-related death rate for opioid users among European countries.

Norway ranked 5th, Ireland was ranked 8th and Portugal had the lowest death rate at 1 overdose-related death per 1,000 opioid users each year, ten times lower than Ireland.

The report also noted how in Ireland in particular, efforts for decriminalisation have only begun to gather momentum relatively recently and could be linked to other social movements.

One Irish interviewee said:

“There was a general good feeling in Ireland around social progress, we were the
first country in the world to change our constitution to permit access to abortions so there was a great  sense of Ireland being pioneering in some way, that I think fed into it as well, to a certain extent.”

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