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Q&A: Here's where Ireland's political parties stand on drugs ahead of GE2020

We’ve asked the parties their stance on topics such as decriminalisation and how they would tackle drug-related crime.

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AHEAD OF TOMORROW’S general election, TheJournal.ie has been asking each political party for their positions on a variety of issues affecting people across Ireland.

So far, we’ve published Q&A pieces on a broad range of issues including housing, insurancecyclingchildcareagriculturewomen’s healthcare and parties’ policies on a United Ireland.  

This time around we’re focusing on drugs.

We have asked the parties their stance on topics such as decriminalisation of drugs for personal use; supervised injection centres; minimum sentencing; and how they would tackle drug-related crime.

Here’s what they had to say.

Does the party agree with the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use

Two medicinal cannabis products were approved and registered for use in Ireland under the Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP) in December - but only for patients with specific medical conditions, where the patient has failed to respond to standard treatments.

However, legalising cannabis for medical use has hit a number of roads blocks in recent years and legislation has failed to get enough support in the Oireachtas. Some people argue that cannabis, for medicinal purposes or otherwise, should be legalised – this would allow the government to regulate and tax sales.

Others say all drugs for personal use should be decriminalised, meaning the substances remain unregulated but those caught using them face civil fines instead of criminal charges.

In November 2015 the Oireachtas Justice Committee recommended that the possession of drugs for personal use be decriminalised, and that those found in possession attend counselling and treatment meetings to help them stop using drugs. 

Last August the government unveiled its plan to give people caught in possession of drugs a chance to seek treatment instead of being arrested on the spot. 

In the first instance of being found in possession, gardaí will refer the person to health services. In the second instance, the gardaí will have discretion to issue an adult caution. Third and further offences will be treated within the criminal justice system, as is the case currently. 

So, where do the parties stand on this issue of decriminalisation? 

A spokesperson for Fine Gael said the party wants “to move away from the idea of criminalising someone for first-time possession of drugs for personal use”.

“This approach would not decriminalise drug use, rather it would defer people to health and social services for help and support, rather than giving them a criminal record, which could destroy their lives, reduce their employment prospects or make it harder for them to take up opportunities abroad,” the spokesperson said. 

They stated that the party has “no plans to legalise what is commonly referred to as recreational cannabis”.

They added that the MCAP, which is operating on a pilot basis for five years, means that commercial medical cannabis suppliers whose cannabis products meet the specified requirements set out in the legislation “will be able to supply these products to the Irish market via an Irish-based authorised wholesaler”.

A spokesperson for Fianna Fáil said the party believes “we should explore the introduction of a delayed criminalisation model where drug offences, currently defined for personal usage, are directed towards proper treatment and intervention services so healthcare is prioritised over a criminal justice and prison process that only reinforces addiction and deprivation”.

“It is important that this model would be properly codified, constructed and formalised to ensure that people with drug addiction are given the opportunity and chance to overcome addiction,” the spokesperson said. 

They said the party is “happy to support any measures that provide for cannabis-based medicines being prescribed by qualified medical professionals to alleviate suffering”. However, they added that this process “should be strictly controlled and the use of cannabis and cannabis-related products for medicinal purposes should be regulated like other medicines”.

shutterstock_782291779 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Tunatura

Sinn Féin did not respond to our questions and its manifesto does not specifically mention decriminalisation of drugs but the document states that harm reduction and prevention will be “guiding principles” when dividing the party’s future drug strategy.

“Treatment and rehabilitation strategies will go hand in hand with recovery initiatives that will help to support people in recovery. Sinn Féin supports a holistic approach for prevention, rehabilitation and recovery,” the manifesto notes.

The Labour Party said, if in power, it would “formally recognise that addiction to drugs is a health problem, and will not penalise minor possession of drugs by people who are addicted along the lines of the Portuguese model“.

“However, drug trafficking will remain illegal, and Garda resources will be focused on serious traffickers, drug-related intimidation and violent drug gangs,” a spokesperson said. 

They added that the party does not want all drugs to be decriminalised, saying this “could send the wrong signal that drugs were not harmful, whereas some illegal drugs have serious long-term consequences for people’s health”.

The party is, however, open to examining “the case for decriminalisation of some types of cannabis, and the creation of a regulated market, as has been done in the Netherlands, Canada and some US states”.

“However, not enough is known about the long-term health effects of cannabis, especially as increasingly stronger strains of the drug are now available. We do not want a situation where even as tobacco smoking is in decline, another drug could become more widely used and cause seriously negative effects on public health,” the spokesperson said.

The Green Party did not answer specific questions put to it but its manifesto states that the criminalisation of drug consumption is “a counterproductive policy that perpetuates business models of organised crime and fails to address the public health impact of drugs”.

The party wants “a more compassionate policy based on international best practice can be introduced within existing constraints under international law”.

If in power, the party said it would remove criminal penalties for possessing less than a week’s supply of a scheduled drug and review the status of all scheduled substances for medical potential, “allowing for controlled cultivation as deemed appropriate for research purposes”.

The Greens want cannabis and its derivatives rescheduled as from a Schedule I drug (illegal and deemed to have no medicinal or scientific value) to a Schedule IV drug (controlled medicinal products); they would decriminalise the possession of small quantities of cannabis products and plants; and allow prescription of cannabis-based medicines through pharmacies.

A spokesperson for Solidarity said the party agrees with the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, telling us: “A health-centred approach to drug misuse is a more enlightened approach than a criminal justice one.”

They said the “act of consumption does not make one a criminal”, adding that “people’s lives should not be blighted” in terms of employment prospects and not being allowed to travel to countries such as the US. 

Solidarity supports both the decriminalisation and regulated sale of cannabis, saying the latter “is an essential means of harm reduction and taking the trade out of the hands of criminal elements”. 

People Before Profit, which runs as an alliance with Solidarity, agrees with the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use.

“Drug taking and addiction should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. This would facilitate a harm reduction strategy which would seek to reduce dependency on drugs,” a spokesperson told TheJournal.ie

In terms of cannabis, they said the party favour decriminalisation “but there should be a regulatory agency to ensure that the product is safe and is not adulterated with dangerous substances by criminal elements”.

The National Party said it “will staunchly oppose the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, and work to implement a more rigorous and forceful response to combat their use”.

A spokesperson said the party believes illicit substances have “deleterious effects upon the mental wellbeing of the Irish people” and “removing restrictions on the possession of illicit substances would result in more widespread and prolific use”.

Not all parties responded to our queries, but you can read their policies here: Social Democrats, Aontú, Renua and Irexit.

Does the party agree with the opening of supervised injection centres

In December An Bord Plenála granted planning permission for Ireland’s first supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre.

Plans to build a medically supervised injecting facility (MSIF) at Merchants Quay Ireland’s Riverbank Centre on the city’s south quays have been in the works for over three years.

Last July the council refused planning permission for the addiction and homelessness charity to build the MSIF following fierce objections from local businesses and residents.

On appeal, An Bord Pleanála approved MQI’s planning application to build the centre, consisting of seven injecting rooms where drug users can go to inject drugs under the supervision of a medical professional.

In a statement issued in December, MQI said: “With one death every day in Ireland from a drug overdose, this facility will save lives.

“We understand that there are concerns from members of the local community, and we will work closely with them and all stakeholders as the project progresses to ensure that this facility benefits everyone.”

So, where do the parties stand on the issue? 

A Fine Gael spokesperson said the party wants to “reduce the number of lives lost through overdose and will open a pilot medically supervised injecting facility in Dublin city to bring those who openly inject drugs into a safe environment where they can access health supports and make communities more secure”.

“A Community Liaison Officer for the Medically Supervised Injecting Facility has been appointed who will ensure that local residents and businesses are kept informed of plans as they develop,” they stated. 

The 2016 Programme for Government contained a commitment to open an MSIF and legislation was passed in 2017 allowing for such centres to open. 

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson noted that the party “supported the introduction of such a centre on a pilot basis with regular reviews, including feedback from stakeholders, undertaken to measure its success”.

“A supervised injection centre must be a gateway to effective treatment, rehabilitation and intervention aimed at harm reduction for those suffering from addiction.”

When asked if the party supports more centres being opened, the spokesperson said the pilot project should be evaluated first.

“It may well be another year before the Merchant’s Quay centre is operational and we need to give it time to see how it works. It is essential that we listen to any concerns about these centres and seek to address them first. It may well be that the experience of such a centre may change minds on the topic,” they added. 

Sinn Féin did not reply to our specific queries, but the party has previously said it supports supervised injection centres.

90288107_90288107 A used needle in a pool of blood on Lotts Lane, Dublin 1. Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

The Labour Party said in its manifesto that it “will ensure that Ireland’s first overdose prevention centre operates successfully, and this model will be rolled out to other areas and to cover a wider range of substances of addiction”.

The party also wants to expand the availability of addiction treatment services across the country and expand public access to anti-overdose drugs such as Naloxone so that first responders can carry it.

A spokesperson said overdose prevention centres “reduce drug litter, reduce the incidence of people consuming drugs in public and reduce the number of drug-related deaths, including deaths in public places, from drug consumption”.

“This will benefit residents and businesses in proximity to the centres. Having a sufficient number of the centres, spread out, will avoid a concentration of people in one place to access a centre.”

The Green Party said it supports medically-supervised safe injection facilities “for the phased withdrawal of heroin and other substances as deemed appropriate by the Minister for Health”.  

A spokesperson for Solidarity said the party supports the opening of supervised injection centres “as a means of harm reduction but also bringing people into an environment where paths to recovery are made available”.

“Local residents should be consulted and concerns addressed but ultimately cannot veto the provision of an essential harm reduction facility,” they added. 

People Before Profit also agrees with the opening of such facilities, with a spokesperson saying the centres “facilitate a harm-reduction strategy and ensure that there is no sharing of dangerous needles which, in the past, was a major source for the spread of HIV”.

Speaking about people’s concerns, the spokesperson said: “Those living nearby should be consulted and there should be a public education programme to allay fears.”

A spokesperson for The National Party said it stands with local communities who are “opposed to the facilitation of illegal drug use under the auspices and tacit encouragement of the State through the use of supervised injection centres”.

What would the party do to tackle drug-related violence and crime

Drug-related crime and violence, some of it particularly shocking and brutal such as the killing of 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods, is never far from the headlines.  

So, what would the parties do to stop such incidents from happening? 

A spokesperson said Fine Gael provided “the highest level of support to An Garda Síochána as they tackle the scourge of drug-related and organised criminality”. They said a record €1.882 billion has been allocated to gardaí this year, as well as capital investment of over €116 million.

“This level of funding is enabling sustained, ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff ,” the spokesperson said, adding that there are over 14,300 gardaí nationwide, supported by more than 2,900 garda staff.

They added that Fine Gael has funded the recruitment of up to 700 gardaí in 2020 and “will continue to fund up to 700 gardaí annually”.

The spokesperson noted that since the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Unit (GNDOCB) was established in 2015, it has seized over €168 million of illicit drugs; 109 firearms; 3,380 rounds of ammunition; and cash worth almost €11 million; and been responsible for more than 780 arrests.

The spokesperson said, if in power, Fine Gael will continue to increase resources to both GNDOCB and the Criminal Assets Bureau, as well as establishing more local taskforces to tackle drug crime and social disadvantage, “building on the successful Dublin North Inner City model”.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson noted that the party brought in the Criminal Justice (Amendment) (Act) 2009 when it was last in power.

They described the legislation as “the most far-reaching legislation in the history of the state to deal with gang-related offences”, noting it “provided that gang-related offences, such as directing a criminal organisation, will be heard by the Special Criminal Court”.

The spokesperson added that more needs to be done given recent developments, stating: “We need extraordinary laws to deal with an extraordinary situation. We are in the middle of a national crisis on drug and gangland crime.”

If in government, Fianna Fáil wants to “bring forward laws similar those that were brought in to deal with the Provisional IRA”.

“Under new laws, the belief of Chief Superintendent as to the involvement of an individual in gangland activity will be admissible in evidence. People do not feel safe coming forward to give evidence against drug gang members and so we need to be able to rely on the evidence of the gardaí,” the spokesperson said. 

Sinn Féin did not respond to our specific queries but the party’s manifesto states: “The wider harms caused to society by drugs and the criminal gangs that control its distribution must be tackled.

“The drug crisis including drug-debt related violence and intimidation of families and communities needs to become a priority of any new government. Community engagement in conjunction with increased Garda numbers, visibility and responses are key.”

The party’s priorities in this area include: 

  • Ensuring a minister who sits at the cabinet table is given responsibility to tackle this crisis
  • Increasing investment in the Drugs Strategy and Drug and Alcohol Task Forces by €12 million
  • A Garda recruitment drive (increasing the size of the on-duty force to over 16,000)
  • Establishing drug-free zones close to primary and secondary schools, with a radius of 300m, and introducing increased penalties for illegal drug-related activities in such zones

If in power, Labour said it “will establish local commissions to deal with violent drug gangs, which are now operating across the whole country, to ensure violent criminals and gang leaders are brought to justice”.

The party also wants to “develop supports to counter-act social and economic marginalisation that often underlies the involvement of young people in the drug trade. Labour will provide the Gardaí with all the resources they need to bring violent gang leaders to justice.

Labour will establish a Gun Crime Commission “to learn from other jurisdictions the best way to eliminate gun crime and other violent crime, which have escalated in recent years”. The manifesto states that the commission will also “examine why options like the Special Criminal Court have not been used to target violent drug gangs, despite this being permitted in law”.

The party also wanted to develop a strategy to expand the Naval Service “so that it can fully patrol all our waters, including to defeat drug smuggling operations”.

A spokesperson for Solidarity said “the market for the major dealers has to be destroyed” and “controlled availability under supervision of substances/substance substitutes tied to a recovery programme is a necessary step to reduce crime”.

They said such measures would “destroy the big dealers ‘business model’ which involves minors”, adding: “We are in favour of severe sanctions for those found guilty of abusing minors though involving them in the drugs trade.”

A spokesperson for People Before Profit said the best way to solve this problem is to “deal with the root causes”.

“In areas of high unemployment, drugs can function as an alternative economy giving status to those who are effectively excluded from success in the mainstream economy. Hence the need for a clear programme to tackle economic deprivation.

“Drug-induced violence is also a direct product of criminalisation. Just as prohibition in America gave big opportunities to the Mafia, so has criminalisation lead to a form of ‘jungle capitalism’ where more and violence part of a ‘business strategy’,” they said.

The National Party said it believes in “a firmly law-and-order approach to dealing with criminality” and would “lower the threshold at which the Criminal Assets Bureau can target drug dealers assets” and would increase penalties for those convicted.

“With the descent into barbarism, it is evident that those involved in what has recently been termed ‘narco-terrorism’ have no fear of repercussions or pursuit from An Garda Síochána,” the spokesperson said.

They added that the party is in favour of the restoration of the death penalty in certain circumstances.

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“We firmly believe in the restoration of the death penalty as a sanction for particularly heinous crimes. The kidnapping, torture, murder, dismemberment and dispersal of a 17-year old’s remains ought to qualify as being a particularly heinous crime in the eyes of all respectable folk,” they said. 

Would the party introduce stricter punishments for people who involve children in drug dealing

A Fine Gael spokesperson noted that Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan “requested an examination of the possibility of introducing a specific offence of grooming children, through inducements such as the provision of drugs or by other means, for the commission of drug related crime, with a view to combating any potential exploitation of children.” They added that this analysis is currently underway.

The party’s manifesto also commits to introducing specific offences for adults who groom children to commit crimes, in line with the recommendations of the former Special Rapporteur on Child Protection.

A spokesperson for Fianna Fáil said the party does want to introduce stricter punishments for people who involve children in drug dealing.

“At the beginning of 2019, the Blanchardstown Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force published research that many already knew to be the case: children as young as eight were working as drug “runners”, with 10-year olds dealing drugs,” the spokesperson said.

They added that a report published by University of Limerick lecturer John Connolly at the end of last year supported these findings.

“During the 32nd Dáil Fianna Fáil introduced legislation to severely punish those who purchase drugs from children and those who use minors as cogs in their distribution network,” the spokesperson told us. 

Fianna Fáil’s manifesto includes a commitment to introduce this legislation if the party is are in government following the general election.

A Labour spokesperson said the party wants to “introduce specific laws to target the grooming of child by crime gangs”.

If in power, Labour said it would ensure garda resources are “focused on serious traffickers, drug-related intimidation and violent drug gangs”.

The party also wants to make it a stand-alone criminal offence to involve children in the drugs trade, such as getting them to carry drugs. “This offence will carry stiff penalties to send a clear signal of zero tolerance for this activity,” the spokesperson said. 

A spokesperson for Solidarity said the measures the party listed above were implemented “it would destroy the big dealers ‘business model’ which involves minors”.

“We are in favour of severe sanctions for those found guilty of abusing minors though involving them in the drugs trade,” they stated. 

A People Before Profit spokesperson said: “There are already a raft of laws dealing with developing of criminal gangs.”

Does the party believe minimum sentencing for drug offences should be more strictly enforced

In 2019, just one person convicted of possession of drugs with a value of more than €13,000 received a prison sentence of more than 10 years – that’s the minimum sentence in such a scenario, as set out under the Misuse of Drugs Act, bar exceptional circumstances.

When asked where the party stands on this on minimum sentencing, a Fine Gael spokesperson noted that the party recently introduced legislation to establish a Judicial Council a proposal that “had been in the discussed for around two decades”.

“The Judicial Council will establish sentencing guidelines for all criminal offences and drug offences will be included in this critical work. The purpose of the guidelines is to ensure consistency in the application of sentences and also to introduce greater transparency to the sentencing process,” the spokesperson said. 

Fianna Fáil‘s spokesperson said the fact only one person was sentenced for more than 10 years under the Misuse of Drugs Act last year was “surprising given that the legislation envisages all people convicted under the section receiving a minimum of a 10-year sentence unless exceptional circumstances are at play”.

“While we appreciate the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, we have a concern that the sentences being handed down are diluting the very essence and purpose of the statutory provision imposing a minimum mandatory sentence.

“We will liaise with the Sentencing Committee in the Judicial Council to raise our concerns and request that they prepare guidelines as to what constitutes “exceptional circumstances,” they stated. 

A Labour spokesperson said the party’s “overall approach is to prefer non-custodial sentences for non-violent offences, however those who have led drugs gangs should be jailed due to their legacy of violence”.

“Best practice in dealing with sentencing is to allow judges to have scope in relation to the most appropriate sentence for the person and the crime they are presented with. Major drug dealers should be jailed,” they said. 

Labour, if in power, said it would expand the role of the Criminal Assets Bureau “so that a unit of the CAB targets and takes away the criminal assets of lower-level criminals to deter younger people from being attracted to gang activity”.

A spokesperson for Solidarity stated: “The greatest sanction that can be meted out to the big dealers is the destruction of their market, which will also serve as a deterrent to criminal elements moving into the drugs trade.

“Sentencing should be commensurate with the crimes committed by the big dealers and the estimated ongoing threat they pose to society.”

A People Before Profit spokesperson said minimum sentencing is “a blunt instrument” and “has a superficial attraction for providing a solution”, adding: “It has not worked elsewhere.”

A National Party spokesperson said the party thinks the judiciary in Ireland has in recent years adopted “an excessively lenient approach to those convicted of a plethora of offences – not limited merely to the illegal drug trade, but also towards sexual assaults, possession of child pornography, and violent crimes”.

“The National Party does support recent attempts to introduce minimum sentencing guidelines for the judiciary, though these attempts have lapsed with the dissolution of the Dáil,” the spokesperson said.

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