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Opinion: No one should be prosecuted for personal possession of drugs

People using drugs should be dealt with exclusively via the health system, writes Tony Duffin. Let’s make the change in 2019.

Tony Duffin CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project

A working group has been established under the National Drugs Strategy to look at at a rehabilitative response to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use.

This is often referred to as a policy of decriminalising people who use drugs and the working group was due to report back by the end of this year so we expect to hear from them in 2019. 

The working group builds on the work of a parliamentary committee – the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

That committee released its findings on the issue in November 2015 and strongly recommended ‘the introduction of a harm-reducing and rehabilitative approach, whereby the possession of a small number of illegal drugs for personal use, could be dealt with by way of a civil/administrative response and rather than via the criminal justice route.’

There is strong support to decriminalise people who use drugs from civil society organisations like CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, the National Family Support Network, the Peter McVerry Trust, UISCE, Novas, Merchants Quay Ireland, Ana Liffey Drug Project and more.

There is also, strong support from high profile individuals including Philly McMahon and Emmet Kirwan.

The working group is chaired by a retired Judge of the High Court and comprises mainly of civil and public servants. While it does include two people with lived experience of using drugs, it does not have formal civil society representation.

As per its remit under the national drug strategy, its role is to make ‘recommendations on policy options to the relevant Minister’, being, in this case, the Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne TD.

Once the Minister has been furnished with the report, it will become a political matter, and our elected representatives will need to decide on how best to proceed.

At Ana Liffey, we have produced a report written with international drug policy experts from the London School of Economics and Columbia University. The evidence is clear – criminalising people simply because they are in possession of drugs for personal use is counterproductive.

It does not result in an increase in drug-related harm but does reduce the harm that is caused by criminalisation itself, such as a restriction on a person’s ability to travel or access the labour market.

Obviously, we are hopeful that the working group will follow this evidence, as well as listening to the members of the public who made submissions to the call for inputs – we believe that the majority of those that made submissions will have been supportive of decriminalising people who use drugs, as was the case when the Joint Committee received public submissions in 2015, when over 90% of submissions favoured decriminalisation.

There are many different ways in which decriminalisation can be achieved, and many different questions which are relevant – for example, should there be threshold limits, which help define the threshold between possession for personal use and possession with intent to sell or supply? Should there be civil sanctions, and if so, what should they be? 

One thing is clear – a health-based approach to personal drug use has no place in the criminal justice system, and the police should be allowed to focus their attention on drug dealing and supply, not individual drug users. Our current drug strategy mandates a health-based approach, and as An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar notes in the foreword:

For the ideal of a Republic of Opportunity to be meaningful, it must apply to all.

“Treating substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health issue, rather than as a criminal justice issue, helps individuals, helps families, and helps communities. It reduces crime because it rebuilds lives,” he said.

We need to recognise fully that drug use is a health issue and deal with it as such. It is not enough that people may not be criminalised for personal drug use; people should never be criminalised for personal drug use.

As a country, we need to refocus – we have spent the last 40 years criminalising possession, and focusing massive resources on ensuring that people who use drugs are criminalised for their drug use alone. During this time, drug use and drug-related harm have risen significantly.

There should never be criminal proceedings for being found in possession of drugs for personal use – people using drugs should be dealt with exclusively via the health system. Designing such an approach does not need to be complex, it just means recognising that people who use drugs should not be criminalised.

With the current political and civil society support for decriminalisation in Ireland, it would be a tragic missed opportunity to have anything less than a fully decriminalised model, and I’m hopeful that its one our elected representatives will not pass up.

As we face into 2019, I look forward to a brighter future in which people who use drugs are no longer branded as criminals for their drug use alone.

Tony Duffin is the CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project which works to reduce the harm caused by drug use. 

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About the author:

Tony Duffin  / CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project

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