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'There are gardaí, politicians and doctors who have taken something illegal at some point'

They get away with it, because we only criminalise the poor, writes Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Senator, Labour

LESS THAN A week on from the momentus result of the referendum on the 8th Amendment, an incredibly significant press release was issued from the Department of Health.

They announced a month-long public consultation on the issue of possession of drugs for personal use. The potential for change in our drug policy could be as seismic as the recent referendum result – appropriate care for those who need it and an end to stigma and shame. The time for decriminalisation of drug use has arrived.

Supervised injecting centres

As Minister for Drugs in the last government I embarked on two main objectives – to deliver Ireland’s first medically supervised injecting centre and to start a national conversation on bringing Portugal’s successful drug decriminalisation policy to Ireland.

The legislation for the injection centre passed all stages in the Oireachtas last year and now a working group has been established to assess the merits of decriminalisation.

The consultation initiated by the department will feed into the working group. If decriminalisation is adopted as national policy, it will change lives. It will save lives.

Care and respect

Decriminalisation effectively means addressing addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one. It doesn’t change the illegal status of any drug – it means the person who takes those drugs is treated with care and respect.

Currently we arrest, charge and convict people for being in possession of substances to which they are addicted, which is having absolutely no positive affect whatsoever. Citywide Drug Project estimate that over 70% of drug cases in front of Irish courts are for possession for personal use. This is a huge waste of garda time that should be spent targeting the drug pushers, not their victims.

In Portugal the move to decriminalisation was made because the country was in the midst of a drug epidemic. In 2000 the decision was made to create ‘Dissuasion Committees’ to deal compassionately with any individual caught in possession of drugs for their own personal use. No longer would there be an immediate criminal sanction.

The committees are made up of health professionals such as doctors and counsellors who can work with the individual to address their drug habit. For a country well used to the familiar terms of ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘war on drugs’ it was a brave if controversial move.

 50% drop

Eighteen years on and there has been a 50% drop in the number of individuals on heroin treatment programmes in Portugal and a complete collapse in the number of fatal overdoses.

If that was to happen in Ireland we would have 10,000 less people addicted to heroin. And we would certainly no longer have the third highest overdose rate in Europe. The policies that we persist with in ireland are simply not working.

The war on drugs is a war on people. And effectively a war on the poor. Drugs are everywhere in Irish society: in every townland, county and city. People from all sorts of backgrounds take drugs and all professions too.

Yes, there are gardaí, politicians, barristers, journalists and doctors who have taken something illegal at some point in their careers but they get away with it, because we only criminalise the poor. The argument for decriminalisation is about saving lives but also about social justice.

Blaming them for their own suffering

As a society we demonise those who suffer from addiction. We blame them for their own suffering. We call them names. They are the only vulnerable group in Irish society that can still be stigmatised in mainstream media with a derogatory and dregrading name.

The disgusting term ‘junkie’ is used all too frequently by broadcasters and columnists without censure because we collectively don’t view them as worthy of respect. No other vulnerable group suffers this added indignity. It adds to stigmas and shame; makes those who suffer less likely to speak about their experiences and ensures that poor addiction services persist throughout the country.

We protest if there is a suggestion of an addiction treatment facility being anywhere near where we live. We want them to be arrested and moved on. Despite the fact that if we are honest there is addiction in every family in Ireland.

The reality is that drug taking is a form of pain killing. It eases the pain of isolation, lack of self-worth, marginalisation, disconnection and poverty.

People fall into addiction for a variety of reasons. It could be trauma, abuse or deep wounding pain. Author and journalist Johann Hari has said the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection. So what is the point of arresting and convicting marginalisation?

The time for change is now

In the aftermath of the introduction of the Injecting Centre legislation, all major Irish political parties have changed their approach to the drugs crisis. There is now a perfect opportunity for the political system to show leadership and to end the crazy practice of placing the sick and poor in garda stations and court rooms.

The momentum continues to build for change with organisations such as Ana Liffey, Citywide, Hot Press and USI backing the call for decriminalisation as well as respected voices such as Fr Peter McVerry, Emmet Kirwan and Philly McMahon.

When myself and Lynn Ruane introduced legislation into the Seanad in 2016 to make decriminalisation a reality we thought we were embarking on a long and lonely struggle. We don’t feel like that anymore. It feels like it’s time.

It’s time to embrace the evidence. To stop criminalising addiction and to start treating our most vulnerable of citizens with the respect and compassion they deserve.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is hosting a public meeting on Decriminalisation of Drug Use on Tuesday June 26th at 8pm in Le Chéile Donnycarney with Fr Peter McVerry, Senator Lynn Ruane and Anna Quigley of Citiwide. The Dept of Health Consultation ends on June 30th.

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About the author:

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin  / Senator, Labour

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