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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 11 December, 2018
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Ireland should stop wasting resources on arresting people caught with small amounts of drugs

Director of Help Not Harm, Graham de Barra, suggests we need a compassionate and evidence-based approach to drugs and addiction

Graham de Barra

IN IRELAND, THE discussion around drugs has gained much attention following the recent gang-related shootings in Dublin. Due to the ever increasing demand for drugs and the current criminal supply, drugs and crime are inevitably linked.

As long as people want to consume something illegal, then criminals will control the market. As a society we must be brave to protect our communities from violent crime and at a minimum we should invest resources into serious crime and away from minor drug possession.

We must be realistic in our goals to reduce the harms of drugs and this begins with innovative policy.

Evidence based policy

Switzerland is hailed as the pioneers of health-based drug policies introduced in the 1980s to address high HIV rates among the drug injecting community. The extent of the problem rose so high that Platzpitz park in the centre of Zurich was nicknamed “needle park”, where people were often forced to share needles due to a lack of medical services.

The Swiss realised that law enforcement alone and a zero tolerance approach could not deter people from using drugs. They moved to decriminalise personal drug possession which allowed a shift of resources into health and harm reduction.

The results were astounding. Today Switzerland has among the lowest rates of HIV and with the introduction of drug consumption rooms in most cantons, there is no longer the sight of public injecting which once thrived in the heart of their cities.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

Failed drug laws

Drug laws were first introduced to protect people by deterring the “misuse of drugs”. However certain communities have become over-policed and drug laws are used as a tool for social compliance.

The legislative proposal by Simon Harris, which would criminalise the personal possession of drugs without prescription as well as new psychoactive substances and ecstasy, will predictably fail to reduce harm and is an inappropriate use of Garda resources at addressing illegal gangs.

Senator Lynn Ruane put forward a health-based drug policy in the Seanad last week when Minister for Health Simon Harris proposed the new bill. Senator Ruane experienced first-hand from growing up in inner city Dublin how drug laws have failed and how they could be helping people.

She cited a study from the Brookings Institute report which looked at the links between penalising drug crimes, mass incarceration and lost earnings to the State when previous drug offenders are limited in getting jobs due to their record. The study concludes that penalising drug offenders has not only not lowered crime, but that crime has increased since the War on Drugs began.

Drug laws should help, not harm.

Better policies 

One solution for a better drug policy is to stop wasting resources on arresting people caught with small amounts of drugs. A conviction could hinder a person’s chances of employment so it is circular in logic. More convictions and unemployment will cost the State more money.

By making more drugs illegal criminal gangs takeover the market and flourish. Then we lack in resources to tackle gang-related crime and we wonder why.

Source: Brian Lawless/Press Association

It will take more courageous voices in the Oireachtas such as Senator Ruane to ensure that illogical drug laws are challenged. The evidence from Switzerland and around the world is sufficient to try something new.

Over 150 cities from around the world will unite this week under the slogan Support Don’t Punish which calls for an end to criminalising personal drug possession. Families, communities, and young people who are affected most by drugs will come together to support a health-based approach.

On Tuesday, Dublin held its own Global Day of Action at St Stephen’s Green.

Drugs have never been cheaper, more harmful and more used than ever. It’s about time we try a new approach and we hope Support Don’t Punish can bring a nuanced discussion.

Graham de Barra is Director of Help Not Harm, a campaign made up of interest groups calling for drug policy reform in Ireland.

Read: Dublin’s drug laneways: one year on alleys still littered with needles

Read: What’s the best way to destroy violent gangs?Legalise drugs

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