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Dublin: 0 °C Sunday 17 November, 2019
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Lynn Ruane: Harm reduction should always come first with criminal drug policy

We should decriminalise possession of drugs for personal use, writes independent senator Lynn Ruane.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

ON MY BIRTHDAY last month, I was lucky enough to be sitting in a room full of like-minded people to discuss global alliances in the pursuit for fairer drug policy and criminal justice reform.

Not a typical birthday, but I was excited to sit around a table and listen to discussion from the people I always feared the most: prosecutors.

Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) work with elected prosecutors around the US to support and develop new ways of thinking about the justice system. Everyone in the room was talking about all the things I’ve been passionately advocating for my entire life.

I was sharing a room and discussing public health approaches to drug policy/harm reduction with people I never would have expected. 

There were people from various countries discussing innovative approaches to drug policy, public health solutions to violence reduction and other criminal justice issues. I didn’t expect to feel the way I did when I heard one ex-police officer say: “I don’t want to cause harm anymore.”  

I wondered how many of our own guards have felt this? How many understand the harm caused to people living with addiction by implementing unfair and harmful drug laws and policies? How many within our judiciary know and understand that our drug laws have failed?

I accept we live within a different legal framework to other jurisdictions, but how many within our justice system are willing to stand up and speak out against our archaic, harmful drugs laws?

I suppose there’s only way to find out – by inviting more people into the room where discussions like this are taking place.

Ignoring the backlash 

Two US state’s attorneys who have particularly impressed me in the area of drug reform lately are Marilyn Mosby (serving for Baltimore, Maryland) and Sarah George (serving for Chittenden County, Vermont). A US state’s attorney is a lawyer who represents the interests of the state for whom they work in a legal proceeding. 

Both women took office in 2016 and quickly took on the mantle of drug policy reform, successfully ignored all pushback and refused to prosecute personal possession of life-saving drugs.

Pushback isn’t even the right phrase – we are talking about pushback from a country that led the charge on the war on drugs. Last year, state’s attorney Sarah George said her office would no longer prosecute anyone arrested for possession of unprescribed buprenorphine, which is a drug to treat opioid addiction.  

This created a situation whereby the Vermont State Police were instructed to continue making arrests, but George kept refusing to prosecute. Over time, those pushing back against George realised she wasn’t going to back down and stopped arresting people for possessing these drugs.

Since meeting George, I read an article by the Burlington Free Press in which the State’s Attorney said she chose to make decisions based on what she felt was best for the criminal justice system, not for political purposes. 

If our elected representatives in Ireland operated within that same mindset we would wind up with a very different, fairer justice system. Luckily for Sarah George, she can look to other state’s attorneys like Marilyn Mosby and know that there are more strong representatives making similar calls.

A quick search of Marilyn Mosby online will yield headlines about her “soft” drugs policy, followed by misinformation about encouraging the use of illegal drugs. 

Of course, anyone who understands addiction knows this is not why people support changes in drugs laws. Mosby has also refused to prosecute weed-related charges.

At the conference on my birthday, I sat across the table from Mosby and listened intently as she passionately spoke about her ambitions within office to transform drug policy in her district.

She spoke with a huge amount of knowledge and compassion about the relationship between the mass incarceration of members of the black community and drug laws. I was inspired by the fight I felt from her.

The weekend at this conference in Edinburgh left me with a burning question: What would happen if every guard in Ireland refused to arrest people for personal possession and what would happen if every judge struck out cases of personal possession?

We all know there are many guards and judges who don’t implement the full force of the law for possession for personal use, but it is no longer enough to hope you will meet one of these if you’re found in possession of an illegal substance. 

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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