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Opinion Enough talk - we need to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use

Criminologist Dr Ian Marder proposes a paradigm shift away from criminalising drug use and towards a health-led approach.

THE JURY IS in: The ‘war on drugs’ has failed. It has failed to reduce drug use, failed to make our communities safer, and failed to reduce the harm that people with addictions suffer. In fact, it has made the situation around the world worse.

Our drug policy should reflect simple, shared values. First, we should protect, support and empower those of us who experience trauma, neglect, abuse, serious crime or deprivation. Instead, we punish, stigmatise and exclude people for developing addictions due to terrible circumstances beyond their control.

Second, our justice system should make us safer. Giving people criminal records and prison sentences fails this test by trapping them on a dead end road that prevents their recovery and reintegration as law-abiding citizens. We all suffer from the resulting, and entirely preventable, drug-related crimes and re-offending.

Third, healthcare is a fundamental human need. In a country as rich as Ireland, your ill health should not be a barrier to reaching your full potential. Yet, we dawdle over introducing health services that we know reduce drug-related harm and help people beat addiction.

This is not true for all drugs, of course. If your problem is with alcohol – our national drug of choice – we generally accept that the solution lies in healthcare, not criminalisation.

Some people will always use drugs. And, as we know with alcohol, many adults use some drugs safely. By not recognising this reality, we put our security at risk, while compounding the individual and societal harms caused by addiction and problem drug use.

After decades of knowing we have a serious problem, the best available data suggests that the rate of drug-induced deaths in Ireland remains much higher than the EU average. It is also more than seven times that of Portugal, where drug-related deaths plummeted after decriminalisation in 2001 – while rising across Europe – and remain below the EU average.

A health-led approach?

While he was the Minister for Health, the current Minister for Justice Simon Harris admitted ‘the war on drugs has not worked.’ Since then, the Government has been theoretically committed to a ‘health-led approach’ to drug use.

However, this is defined in a very limited way. Under the ‘new system,’ Gardaí will refer someone to a HSE ‘health screening and brief intervention’ the first time they are found in possession of drugs for personal use. The second time, Gardaí can offer an Adult Caution, before prosecution follows a third offence.

This doesn’t address the fundamental problems of criminalisation. People with addictions will be caught with drugs more than once, and a ‘brief intervention’ won’t be enough. Prison and criminal records still await those for whom a proper health-led approach should help.

The stigma of criminalisation means that people are unlikely to come forward for treatment. And treatment is limited for those who seek it, with public money wasted on criminal justice responses instead.

This is a far cry from Portugal’s successful approach. Realising that criminalisation simply does not deter use, people receive health interventions without being threatened with prosecution later. This non-adversarial system encourages, rather than hinders, engagement.

Ireland’s National Drugs Strategy calls for a health-led approach. If this is what we want, it is illogical to continue criminalising users.

Still, our Government’s shift in language and tack shows a recognition that we need change and a willingness to take small steps in the right direction. This is crucial at a time when the UK Government doubles down on failed policies of the past – though more and more English police forces refuse to waste time pointlessly chasing and prosecuting people who use drugs.

But inching forward is not enough. Fear of change is no longer a legitimate excuse. We need a paradigm shift.

We need to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use.

Will 2023 be the year?

Fortunately, we can learn from other countries and our own experiences. There are pragmatic solutions to this – if we are brave enough to take the next big step.

Conversations about decriminalisation, legalisation and medical uses are happening globally. We see them in Canada and even in the United States: the country that conceived and led the war on drugs for so long. Colombia and Mexico – two countries that know the costs of that war better than most – are also re-examining this orthodoxy.

Following Portugal, smart governments are setting the ball rolling across Europe. Germany, Luxembourg, Czech Republic and others are working on legal change. Efforts in Norway and Italy have hit political and legal speedbumps, but this only delays the inevitable.

The good news is that in Ireland, too, the tide is turning. We are following France and others in setting up our first supervised injection facility. In Switzerland, these facilities succeeded in reducing overdose-related deaths. Some Swiss facilities even prescribe heroin for on-site consumption – with excellent results for harm reduction.

In December, an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice report gave the clearest indication yet that a political consensus could form around decriminalisation in Ireland. This year’s Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use represents a glorious opportunity for change. Previous Assemblies have helped governments take bold steps on social issues.

In the meantime, the Taoiseach holds his cards close to his chest. But the Government also seeks to use more community sanctions to reduce prison overcrowding and reoffending and endorses projects that create pathways to employment and access to higher education for those with histories of addiction or contact with criminal justice.

As with housing and so many social issues, Ireland is at a crossroads on drug policy. This year can bring national progress. We must have the courage to align our laws with evidence and with our values.

Dr Ian Marder is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. He is an expert in criminal justice reform and seeks to communicate the lessons from this area of research to a wider audience.

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