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Practical Solutions

Intent 'should be key concern under drug decriminalisation laws'

Reasonable threshold limits and supportive sanctions should form part of a decriminalisation process, a new study argues.

THE POSSESSION OF small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised and a health-based approach adopted in Ireland, a new study argues. 

‘Not Criminals’, a report drawn up by the Ana Liffey Drug Project and the London School of Economics and Political Science, says that there is “little evidence” that criminalising minor drug possession acts as a deterrent to future drug use.

Reasonable threshold limits for possession should be adopted and serve as “broad guidelines” under a decriminalised system, it notes. 

To protect against “people attempting to thwart the system”, however, intent should be also a “key consideration” where people are in possession of small amounts of drugs.

‘Dual Framework’

Ireland currently operates a dual framework in relation to possession of drugs for personal use, the report notes. 

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977,  possession of drugs is a criminal offence.

The Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, however, did not make possession of drugs covered under that legislation a criminal offence. 

Today’s report argues that Ireland’s “dualist approach” to drugs possession uncovered a key issue – “whether it is necessary or desirable… to criminalise simple possession for personal use.”

Decriminalisation is essentially re-classifying the status of a criminal offence as non-criminal.

Under a decriminalised system, possession of illegal drugs would remain prohibited and be addressed by police. 

However, it would not be treated as a criminal offence.

That approach has already been adopted by other countries.

Portugal, for example, decriminalised the use of illegal drugs in 2001. Experts have said the move resulted in a reduction in the number of infections among intravenous drug users and a significant drop in drug-related crimes.

A law that became active in Portugal in 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.

A 2015 report published by the Oireachtas Justice Committee outlined that, while it might be suggested that these programmes could add to the cost of healthcare in Ireland, the experience in Portugal has “actually resulted in a reduction in costs to the State”.

That cross-party panel also recommended that the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs be decriminalised.

Drug offences

In 2016, the District Court received 20,746 drugs offences involving 13,033 defendants, today’s report notes. 

In 2017, 12,201 incidents of possession of drugs for personal use were recorded, representing over 72% of all drug offences.

Under a decriminalised system, non-punitive sanctions should be implemented, the report recommends. 

These sanctions should be health-based, supportive and voluntary, the report notes, “with as many opportunities afforded to the individual as needed.

The sanctions chosen should recognise that not all drug use is problematic, and where possible, utilise existing structures and services, with defined pathways and interventions set in advance.

The report examined evidence from a number of decriminalised jurisdictions like Portugal and the Czech Republic.

The report also called for training of healthcare workers, educators, the Gardaí and the judiciary on the “aims and implementation” of a decriminalised drug system. 

Any future policy that is introduced in Ireland should also be independently evaluated in terms of its implementation and impact, the report notes. 

A working group, set up to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use, is set to report to Government in late 2018. 

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