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Lynn Ruane: Drug courts are not the solution to Ireland's drug problem

We cannot have a National Drug Strategy that prefers the drug court to a health-focused approach.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

DRUG COURTS, WHICH which differ from other courts in Ireland, were set up with the aim of reducing crime through drug rehabilitation. 

Under this system, you are a person most likely experiencing problematic drug use, yet you are considered an offender, not a participant or patient of the drug courts. 

Offender and health are not terms we consider as being complementary to one another.

The Drug Courts recruit based on a guilty plea and prescribe to a clean urine programme, which rules out many other drug users who are harder to reach, engage and support due to the chaotic nature of their drug use.  

There is another way

Imagine if we had a localised multi-agency and disciplinary team, consisting of nurses, drugs workers, counsellors and educators.

Well, in many areas we do, or we can have with the right resources and policy support. 

A Drug Court has many of these, but a judge oversees it, and your involvement is court-ordered, and your addiction is still an offence.  

It is just another system that will benefit a tiny percentage of drug users, and to succeed, you have to be a model patient, or in this case, offender.

Why they don’t work

Drug courts are and have always been the wrong approach to drug use. The discussion on drug courts cannot be removed entirely from the debate on drug decriminalisation; in the same way as the debate on decriminalisation is not divorced from having a health-led approach for real. 

The Oireachtas Group on Drug Policy Reform (ODPR), chaired by me, recently had a session with Dr John Collins (London School of Economics) and Denise Tomasini (Open Society) on Ireland’s Drug Courts. 

Meeting with Dr Collins and Denise reminded me how quiet I have been on drug courts since my election in 2016. The only reason for this is that I did not want it to get wrapped up in the conversation about decriminalisation. 

Ultimately, I was worried that Justice might see a more enhanced Drug Court system as a way forward, which it isn’t. 

The system needs an overhaul

Rethinking Drug Courts: International Experiences of a US Policy Export by Dr John Collins is an excellent place to start when discussing the issue of Drug Courts. 

The Drug Court in Ireland was established after years of drug-related crime in Dublin. Both the health system and Justice were failing to respond to a drug crisis. 

Of course, they didn’t see any other way to address this than taking an American Model and landing in Dublin in the form of Drug Courts. 

There was a real struggle in the minds of governments to see addiction as a response that should purely be led by health interventions — ignoring reports at the time of the positive relation between methadone treatment and crime rates.  

Today, we see that same pull between those departments persisting, as ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric often drowns out the desire of our health system to deal with drugs without the inference of Justice. 

In the chapter by Dr Collins, he refers to the Fianna Fail approach at the time, which seemed to be a reluctant acceptance of methadone expansion. 

Quoting from Shane Butler of Trinity College Dublin, he states that Fianna Fail’s attitude to expanding methadone treatment at the time was closer to the ideology of the US’s abstinence model. 

He also suggests that Fianna Fail at the time grudgingly accepted methadone would play a part in “the detoxification and rehabilitation of addicts”. I would imagine this was due to people struggling to see the use of drugs as anything other than criminal. 

What struck me most about Butler’s comments was the idea of methadone only playing a “secondary role.” Mainly because in many ways, our health system is still shadowing the justice system when it comes to use and problem use of drugs. 

In my view, and I am sure many others, the creation of drug courts was an attempt to find a balance between the two, albeit a failed one. 

To gain greater insight into the development of the Drug Courts and the ‘buy-in’ or lack thereof, I would suggest referring to Dr John Collins’ book. 

Or indeed turn to the writing of Shane Butler to get an insight into what was described as “unresolved tensions which continued to have a negative impact on the ongoing delivery of the drug court model.”

Ireland moved slightly away from the US model by accepting that methadone and maintenance should not be excluded. Acceptance may be too strong of a word to describe their decision. 

A move in name only

The move from the American way of doing things didn’t quite match up with what was unfolding in the drug courts. Mostly we already had people trained as criminal justice experts deciding how people would be treated for substance use. 

You had judges prescribing treatment, prescription of abstinence underpinned by the principles of a US drug court system.

One of the most significant flaws for me is the idea that a judge can order abstinence. This idea that someone can walk away from addiction at the judgement of the court is ridiculous. 

This is proven in the small number of graduating participants. It also has to be asked about who becomes a participant of drug court; they already have to have pleaded guilty.  

Many young men I have worked with for years often pleaded guilty to have the option of a drug court instead of prison. There is a real gap between how many people need access to treatment in Ireland and how many end up in the drug courts. 

Further questions need to be asked about the legal rights of those who do find themselves in the Irish Drug Court.  

We cannot have a National Drug Strategy that claims to see addiction as a health led approach yet have funds steered away from treatment and into a drug court. 

Nobody goes to court to improve their health. 

The sooner we accept that being in front of a health professional and not a judge is what is required to achieve this, then we don’t have a health-led approach to drug use or misuse.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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