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Friday 9 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
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Drugs 'How is arresting someone for something that they are addicted to helping?'
Decriminalisation of addiction is our next great step to a better drug policy, writes Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

AT THE LABOUR Party Conference in Wexford last weekend the delegates voted through two significant motions regarding drug policy reform in Ireland.

One was to legalise and regulate the sale and consumption of cannabis, the other was to decriminalise all personal drug use.

One speaker, Emmet Stagg, said that he had proposed a motion to legalise cannabis fifteen years ago and he was almost lynched. It shows where the drug debate has moved to in Ireland and indeed internationally.

Approving injection centres

As Minister for the National Drugs Policy in the last government I was delighted to get historic cabinet approval for the introduction of medically supervised injection centres.

I also became absolutely convinced that the whole context in which we deal with the drug issue has to change. It is time for us to decriminalise addiction and the personal use of drugs, and to place this entire issue exclusively in the health sphere, not the criminal justice sphere.

It is essential to stress that  decriminalisation does not mean legalisation. It doesn’t mean that drugs that are currently illegal would become legal. It means that those who use them wouldn’t automatically be given a criminal charge. We would decriminalise the person, not the drugs.

Misunderstanding the nature of addiction

We have for generations heard the slogan of “Just Say No”, “War On Drugs” and “Zero Tolerance” but all of these strategies have failed because they fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of addiction.

It places all the emphasis on the drugs themselves, but not on the underlying issues behind addiction such as poverty, disconnection and marginalisation.

Those alienated from society are more likely to get sucked into addiction so when we decide that criminalising drug use is the appropriate response we are actually criminalising marginalisation. And it is that stigma that is literally killing our citizens.

Ireland has the third highest overdose rate in Europe. We have approximately 20,000 heroin addicts, and in 2013 there were 679 drug and alcohol related deaths in Ireland.

How is arresting someone for being in possession of something that they are chronically addicted to helping anyone?

Over 70% of the drug cases in our court system are for possession for personal use.

Fr Peter McVerry has recalled sitting in a courtroom with a young man charged with possession of cannabis to the worth of €2.

Isn’t this a complete and utter waste of Garda time? What are we really saying to those who are so desperately vulnerable that they can’t function without their fix? That they belong in a prison cell? In a courtroom? That they are a criminal?

The Portuguese model

In Portugal they decriminalised possession for personal use in 2001 and the results have been astounding.

The Portuguese “dissuasion committees” were established to allow medical professionals to help the individual with their drug use issue, rather than police officers, solicitors and judges. The result is that while the European average for fatal overdoses is 19 per million, the overdose rate in Portugal is only 4 per million.

If we were to introduce this model to Ireland we would save lives. We would help to tackle a huge amount of stigma that surrounds this issue. Remarkably when we have moved away from openingly using disparaging terminology in relation to so many disadvantaged groupings, society will still unapologetically refer to an addict as a “junkie”.

We victim blame. Which means that those in addiction feel shame as do their families, and they settle for degrading treatment practices. Who else would we expect to travel daily on a bus from Portlaoise to Dublin and back to access medication to help them function?

Who else would we demand to urinate in front of someone else rather than simply taking a mouth swab? Can we genuinely be surprised that our overdose rate is so high?

We have an opportunity to save lives

At the end of May myself and Senator Lynn Ruane will present a bill to the Seanad that will decriminalise drug possession for personal use. We are working with all political parties to garner their support and we are hopeful of success. What gives us great hope are the submissions from all political groupings to the National Drugs Strategy which all advocate for a form of decriminalisation.

Now we have an historic opportunity to save lives. The Irish political system can often pleasantly surprise you. Decriminalisation of addiction is our next great step to a more humane drug policy.

Aodhán Ó Riordáin is a Labour Senator.

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