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'We need to help people who use drugs make healthier choices, not treat them as criminals'

Decriminalising possession can instinctively seem like a bad idea. We need to change public perception, writes Tony Duffin.

IN NOVEMBER 2015, a Joint Oireachtas Committee published a report strongly recommending adopting a ‘harm reducing and rehabilitative approach to the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use’.

In July 2017, the new Irish National Drugs Strategy, under action 3.1.35, provided for a Working Group to be set up to “Consider the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use with a view to making recommendations on policy options to the relevant Minister within 12 months.”

This group was established in December 2017 and will report in due course.

Harm reducing

In effect, when we talk about a ‘harm reducing and rehabilitative approach to the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use’, we are talking about what is more commonly called ‘decriminalisation’.

Currently, it is a crime to possess drugs – the State’s response to possession for personal use is founded in criminal justice – in the time of police and courts and lawyers, and the attendant costs to the taxpayer.

Those advocating for decriminalisation are simply saying that this is not an optimal approach – not that the State should not respond to possession of drugs, but merely that the response should, in line with national policy on drug use, be founded in health and not crime.

The evidence supporting such a move is strong, but to people unfamiliar with the issues, decriminalising possession can instinctively seem like a bad idea, so there is work to be done by advocates to explain to people what a health led response to drug use is, what it isn’t and what will happen when, hopefully, Ireland chooses to implement a more empathic and evidenced informed health based response to the possession of drugs for personal use.

Human consequences of criminalisation

After 36 years providing front line services to people criminalised for their drug use, and seeing the human consequences of such criminalisation, Ana Liffey Drug Project is a strong advocate for a health led response to drug use.

Over the coming months, we will work to engage with the public on this subject, working on a number of projects and events with colleagues in the London School of Economics, Hot Press and CityWide, among others.

We will be engaging the media, holding public events and talking to people about the importance of treating drug use as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

Of course, what policies we decide upon now have an impact on generations to come.

Misuse of Drugs Act

What other policies would people have chosen if they had known in 1977, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced, that 41 years later in 2018 we would have more types of drugs, that they’d be dangerously potent and cheap to buy.

Do you think they would’ve been happy with that policy choice? I don’t. I think the idea of the chaos, disease and death associated with Ireland’s burgeoning drug problem would have frightened people. That maybe instead of trying to solve and fix their fledgling drug use problem, back then, through a criminal justice paradigm, they would have thought it better to respond with a health led response to drug use.

That horse has bolted. What the working group under the national drugs strategy, recommends is crucially important.

Generations to come

Which policies the Irish government decide to implement, in relation to how we respond to drug use in Ireland, will have ramifications for generations to come. This is important.

Ireland has an opportunity now to better manage illicit drug use – we should grasp it firmly and deliver policies which are focused on helping people who use drugs make healthier choices, rather than treating them as criminals.

Tony Duffin is the CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, click here to find out more about the work of Ana Liffey.

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