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Lynn Ruane: Prohibition has never worked anywhere, and it never will

The independent senator says successive governments have failed to truly address the issue of drug use in Ireland.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

THIS WEEK THE Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan, made a powerful statement when he said to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health “let me be clear: a war on drugs is not an effective response to drug use”.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that neither he nor his officials understand – or cared – what the war on drugs means or where it originates from because what emerged from that meeting was, the Minister in fact does stand over criminalisation of people for drug use.

If there is no desire to decriminalise possession for use, then the war continues.

Ireland’s war on drugs

So to better understand how we ended up with the drug policy we have today, I decided to go back in time to explore what the Minister’s political predecessors were saying, and explore the debates surrounding what exactly the Irish political parties of the 1970s were legislating to ban.

Our drug laws can be traced as far back as the late 1800s; but modern drug legislation begins in the form of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. The Act has been amended very little over the years, and in many cases these amendments were only inserted to add new offences. It has had no significant reform; despite the fact that it is older than me, and for the most part, remains as was enacted, regardless of the harm it has undoubtedly caused.

Interestingly, the Act never explicitly names the use of drugs as a criminal offence. It doesn’t have to. Instead, you are criminalised for simple possession; the logic being possession is necessary for drug use to exist. So effectively, drug use, and ultimately addiction is, criminal.

Drug ‘offenders’

It all began on 4 May 1977, when The Misuse of Drugs Bill 1973 was proposed to the Seanad at the second stage. When the then-Minister for Health Brendan Corish laid out the intention of the Act, from the offset, he framed it as dealing with a social problem.

His opening words speak of drug offenders, which I’m led to assume is the term he prescribes to a drug user, but either way, the moment marks a Health Minister, on behalf of the State, introducing legislation that is justice-heavy, to the extent that treatment and rehabilitation are only mentioned in the context of conviction.

It is fair to say then that the Minister was flagging these contradictions when he said: “Heretofore, the courts had no option; once a person was convicted of an offence, other than to impose a fine or sentence of imprisonment. This frequently resulted in the rather harrowing spectacle of a young person with a drug problem, who was not a criminal in the real sense, being committed to prison to no real purpose.

just-say-no-anti-drug-campaign-the-slogan-was-created-and-championed-by-first-lady-nancy-reagan-shown-here-giving-a-speech-during-a-rally-in-los-angeles-california-on-13-may-1987-during-a-national “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, the slogan was created and championed by US First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1987. The slogan formed part of the extensive US 'war on drugs'. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“Under the Bill, it will now be possible for the courts, and mandatory in some cases, to obtain a report on the health and social circumstances of the convicted person before finally deciding how the case should be disposed of.”

While by no means pointing to a health-led approach to drug policy, Minister Corish does seem to have the seeds of ‘not a criminal’ present in his mind. From his words, we can see that the Health Minister knew then what’s still true today: the drug user is used as a spectacle and them going to prison makes no real sense. Even then, the relaxation of penalties for simple possession was recommended by a Dáil Special Committee, but subsequently ignored on the floor of the house.

This hard-on-drugs narrative is inherited directly from America, a fact explored in great detail in books such as Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. We can see it in the debate on the Seanad floor in the 1970s on the Misuse of Drugs Act when a Senator said: “If the use of drugs is commonplace in the United States and elsewhere, it is only natural to expect that the same situation will exist here, but perhaps not on the same scale”.

Little has changed

What is clear throughout the record of the debate on our drugs act is the fact the politicians present were legislating for something they had no experience of, and with little evidence to point to.

This, unfortunately, is still the case.

In June 2016, I made my first contribution on the Seanad Floor on this very Act. It came as then-Minister for Health Simon Harris was amending the Drugs Act in order to add new drug types to the schedule. It marked the first time I put my views on criminalisation on the Seanad record and funnily enough, the chairman for the debate that day was our now Minister with responsibility for the National Drug Strategy, Frank Feighan.

For my part, I used the debate to put forward an amendment with the intention of making possession of the substances listed in Part One and Part Two of the Schedule (i.e cannabis, cocaine, or morphine) no longer subject to prosecution in cases in which amounts found equated to personal usage.

The amendment was lost. But this marked the first of many attempts to challenge the Act, and which each attempt with my arguments have remained the same, they were the same that first day as they are now, they that day were same as when I was working in the addiction sector, prohibition has failed and does not work.

These arguments were only strengthened by reports released at the time by the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health, which found that the war on drugs had done more harm than good. With the backing of a society representative of thousands of doctors and health officials all calling for the end to criminalisation, I was hopeful for what could be.

Furthermore, in March 2016, 22 medical experts assembled by Johns Hopkins University and the preeminent medical journal The Lancet called for the decriminalisation of possession. In their extensive review of the state of global drug policy, the experts determined that anti-drug policies in the US both directly and indirectly contribute to violence, discrimination, disease and the undermining of people’s right to health.

In addition to the harm caused to the individual and society by our outdated legislation, economically, it is also nonsensical.

Since the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs more than 50 years ago, it is estimated that governments have collectively spent $100 billion annually on combating drug production, trafficking and use. This is a massive state investment that has had a hugely negative impact. Under this law enforcement approach to drugs, we have seen a thriving drug market with an estimated global increase in drug users of 20%.

But despite all this evidence, my perspective isn’t new. I want to once again revisit the original debate surrounding the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act and specifically Fianna Fáil’s John F. O’Connell’s contribution. I am intrigued by his contribution to Dáil Éireann on 20 February 1975 on a resumed second stage hearing of the Act.

Treatment not punishment

I can never fully know his intentions, but from my reading of his contributions, he speaks consistently of education, not fear-mongering, and he speaks to adults being informed and young people understanding the nature of drugs and before pointing to responsibility with drugs.

Through it all, I don’t detect a ‘just say no’ type rhetoric. Instead, I feel he is making what he feels as a measured contribution. He clearly states that “responsibility towards drugs would serve a more useful purpose than all the legislation passed here because convictions and punishments will not solve the problem of drug addiction any more than it solved the problem of alcoholism in the United States in the days of Prohibition”.

During his contribution, the Deputy went on to emphasise treatment, not punishment, and drew parallels between someone suffering from alcohol addiction and how someone caught with a joint could land themselves with five years’ imprisonment and yet no punishment for alcohol.

He knew the hypocrisy and called it out. “We may be wrong in our approach if we punish people who, through no fault of their own, become addicts. We have no right to go into a bar and take out a person who is drinking too much. No one suggests we should do that, but we are suggesting doing exactly that in the case of a person who has become dependent on a drug,” he said.

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“We should think about this again. Should we amend this Bill? I am not too happy about it as it stands. I am not convinced prison is the answer. I am not convinced one should put the drug addict in jail. That will not solve the problem. We are thinking as they did in the Middle Ages when men went to jail for kissing their wives on Sunday. The puritans were moralising. That was the way they thought.”

There was real foresight in this statement: “I am not convinced prison is the answer”. It is quite something in analysing the debates surrounding this Act that treating a person who uses drugs with humanity, and in a health-led way, is in consciousness, yet then, and now we still choose not to.

It is as though we know logically it makes sense, but allow morality control policy and now the state continues to stand over policies that largely punish the poor.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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