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Opinion We as legislators must be brave and make difficult decisions regarding drug laws

Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe says we cannot consider drug laws without understanding the trauma behind drug use.

SINCE THE DRUGS Act of 1977, we have been waging a war on drugs in Ireland. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably.

Our approach to drugs, and how drug users interact with the criminal justice system isn’t working for anyone. Small instances of possession, waste Gardaí and court time. But more importantly, it criminalises and punishes those who are suffering from drug addiction.

The upcoming Citizens Assembly on drugs, which is expected to be established before the Dáil breaks for the summer, is an opportunity for the country to have an honest and transparent conversation about drug use in Ireland and how we should deal with it.

In the time that I’ve represented the people of Dublin North West, both as a councillor and as a TD, I’ve seen the communities that I represent travel a journey in relation to drugs. Ballymun and Finglas, have been significantly impacted by drugs since they first really started to take hold in the 1970s. During the heroin epidemic, communities took the fight to the drug dealers with the drug marches and there would have been broad support for what became the war on drugs and the current criminal justice approach.

Understanding the causes

This approach has failed. Nobody knows this better than communities and people impacted by drugs. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 is still the main framework under which we deal with drugs within the criminal justice system. The act criminalises and punishes people for possession of small amounts of drugs, and this is what we need to reconsider.

The current framework criminalises people with addiction rather than addressing the underlying issues related to drug abuse.

We know that drug deaths in Ireland are three times the European average and these stats are among the highest within the EU. Punishing people in addiction isn’t working and campaigners argue that we are pushing people further into addiction by doing so.

Trauma is often overlooked in discussions of drug abuse in Ireland, and one which I am on a learning journey about myself.

A large majority of people who struggle with addiction have experienced significant trauma in their lives, such as generational poverty, abuse and sexual abuse.

This trauma can weigh heavily on people and they turn to drugs as a form of self-medication. In a podcast produced by Fianna Fáil looking ahead to the Citizens Assembly on Drugs, former Dublin GAA star Philly McMahon recalls a conversation with a prisoner in Mountjoy who was getting into trouble. The prisoner recalled that every time he closed his eyes he saw the man that sexually abused him as a child.

This man was clearly using drugs to forget his pain. These circumstances are what we need to be mindful of when discussing any change to how we deal with drugs in Ireland. This man didn’t need to be criminalised for using drugs to forget his pain, he needed support and compassion to overcome his hurts.

Another important factor to consider is the issue of dual diagnosis or the co-occurrence of addiction and mental health disorders. Many individuals who struggle with addiction also struggle with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. It is important that any approach to addressing drug abuse in Ireland takes this into account and addresses both the addiction and the underlying mental health issues.

Changing our approach

One potential model for addressing drug abuse in Ireland is the Portuguese model, which decriminalised the possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001. This change in policy has led to a significant reduction in the number of individuals incarcerated for drug offences and has allowed more resources to be directed towards addressing the underlying health issues related to drug abuse.

I know people will be concerned that decriminalisation is the state endorsing drug use, but the results don’t show that.

Since decriminalisation in Portugal, their rates of drug use have remained below the EU average. More importantly, though, the number of drug-induced deaths has reduced drastically. Much of this is down to the harm reduction and supports put in place post-decriminalisation. If we turn our attention and resources away from criminalising drug users we can focus on treatment and supporting people out of addiction.

Our current system of criminalising people for small possessions of drugs wastes valuable Gardai̛ and court time. These are Garda resources that would be better placed fighting the gangland criminals who profit off the backs of communities across the country.

These problems aren’t just isolated to certain communities. Every community across the country has issues with drug abuse, it’s just less visible in some communities that have different demographics and resources to seek treatment.

We have been treating personal drug use as a crime for almost 50 years and we can continue for another 50 years, but it won’t resolve the issue. It’s time for Ireland to adopt a new approach.

This starts by fighting the drug gangs head-on, decriminalising the user and offering support to the person while educating our young people on the dangers related to drug use. The Citizens Assembly is a valuable opportunity to begin an honest and transparent conversation about drug use in Ireland. We need to be honest with ourselves and recognise that drug use is happening at a significant scale all across Ireland.

The Citizens Assembly will bring together 100 people from across Irish society while hearing from medical experts, campaigners and those with a lived experience of drug use.

Following that, it will be up to politicians such as myself to be brave and make difficult decisions. We’ve had a number of difficult national conversations over the past decade, and this is another one in which we must engage openly and transparently and not retreat into the trenches of our pre-conceived ideas.

Paul McAuliffe is spokesperson on Local Government, Electoral Reform and PP Councillor Liaison. He is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North West.

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