COMMENT: Ireland has a chance to set an example to the world in how we treat drug users
Criminalising people for possession of drugs for personal use is damaging, stigmatising and wasteful and should be avoided.
By Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977/84, with subsequent amendments, is the primary source of drug-related policy in Ireland.
41 years of an enforcement-led approach has not reduced the availability of drugs or indeed reduced the harms associated with problematic drug use in Ireland. Almost a year ago, on 11 December 2017, the first meeting took place of a working group established under the National Drugs Strategy, tasked with examining the case for decriminalising people who use drugs.
The working group, chaired by retired High Court Judge Mr. Justice Garrett Sheehan, is due to report back to Catherine Byrne TD, Minister of State with Responsibility for Public Health and the National Drugs Strategy, at the end of this year.
The findings and the recommendations of the imminent report are of critical importance to Ireland; it will inform how we as a society respond to drug use, possibly, for decades to come. Getting it right will mark Ireland as a global leader in how to respond to drug use – by working to reduce harm and support recovery.
It is clear from the evidence that this can be best achieved by moving to a health-led response instead of a criminal justice approach; we could help save lives, get people through to treatment and rehabilitation faster than otherwise and save taxpayer money. This is the approach that is consistent with our national strategy and in my experience, there is significant and ever increasing political and civil society support for a health-led approach to personal drug use.
Hopefully, the working group will be both innovative and practical and come back with a recommendation to fully decriminalise people who use drugs by ensuring possession for personal use is no longer treated as a criminal offence. This is the approach that a Joint Oireachtas Committee strongly recommended in 2015, an approach supported by many members of the public, many politicians and many civil society actors, including the Ana Liffey Drug Project, Fr. Peter McVerry, UISCE, the National Family Support Network and CityWide.
Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project
It is also the approach that is consistent with our National Drugs and Alcohol Strategy 2017-2025, of treating drug use as a health issue, in line with international best practice and in line with the goal of helping people who are using drugs to make positive changes in their lives – destigmatising them and making it easier to get help.
One of the main arguments against this approach I have heard in the recent discourse is the need for increased investment in treatment services, further overburdening an already overstretched sector.
There is always a need to match resources to demand, and at times like this, there is always tension brought by competing sectors for funding and for resources. However, while this jostling is understandable, it cannot be allowed to be a basis for the decision on how best to respond to drug use in society. We already have considerable resource capacity in this regard and, while there are deficits, as in all jurisdictions, we should not let funding be the enemy of the good when making informed policy decisions.
Our policy should be decided on its merits; we cannot continue to criminalise Irish citizens needlessly because we are concerned that we will not have resources to meet their health needs. Although inadequate, it would be far better to not criminalise them in the first place and not have the resources to meet their health needs. Criminalising people for possession of drugs for personal use is damaging, stigmatising and wasteful and should be avoided.
It may be that the working group will come back with what they see as a middle ground – something like expanding adult cautioning for possession offences and expanding drug courts. This would not be addressing the fundamental issue.
And what is the fundamental issue?
Essentially drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. That is what our National Drugs and Alcohol strategy says, what An Taoiseach says, what all of the evidence from around the world says. Adult cautioning and drug courts are criminal justice responses, not health interventions. Keeping the State’s responses to possession for personal use within the justice arena is simply wrong. It would be like the working group accepting that Ireland shouldn’t have criminalised personal drug use back in 1977, but instead of recommending that we right that wrong now, they recommend that we try to reverse engineer a health response via the justice system.
Alternatively, it may be that the working group will simply stick with the status quo and retain criminalisation of drugs for personal use in spite of all the contrary evidence, but this is unlikely and would be difficult to justify.
My hope is that the working group will follow the evidence and recommend a fully decriminalised model. Any compromise on this will have unfortunate outcomes, both for people who use drugs and for society as a whole.
Ireland has a great opportunity now and the eyes of the drug policy world are upon us. We need to do right, and doing right means no longer treating people who use drugs as criminals.
Tony Duffin is CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project. To find out more about the work of Ana Liffey visit www.aldp.ie.