The ‘war on drugs’ is a lie - and now is the time for Ireland to call an end to it
2019-03-01 00:00:00 -
World News

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin


Amid all the disputes and controversies that have convulsed the Department of Health in the recent past, it may have slipped the attention of many that we could be on the brink of a seismic shift in our national drug policy.


The department assembled a working group almost two years ago to assess the issue of possession of drugs for personal use. The potential for change in our drug policy could be as historic as the referendum that repealed the 8th Amendment last May — appropriate care for those who need it and an end to stigma and shame. The time for decriminalisation of drug use has arrived.


As Minister for Drugs in the last Government, I embarked on two main objectives: to deliver Ireland’s first medically supervised injection 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.


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 effect whatsoever. The Citywide Drug Project estimates that over 70 per cent 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.


Eighteen years on and there has been a 50 per cent drop in the number of individuals on heroin treatment programmes in Portugal, and a complete collapse in the number of fatal overdoses. If that were to happen in Ireland, we would have 10,000 fewer 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.


As a society we demonise those who suffer from addiction. We blame them for their own suffering. We call them names. 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.


The reality is that drug-taking is a form of painkilling. 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, it’s 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 injection 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 the likes of 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 Lynn Ruane and I 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 a Labour Party Senator.


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