Ireland is in the throes of a legislative drug reform aimed at helping rather than incarcerating drug users.
A new National Drug Strategy, launched last week, could see the Misuse of Drugs Act amended to exclude jail time for those caught with small quantities of drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Backed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health, Simon Harris and Minister of State for Drugs, Catherine Byrne, the contentious proposal to decriminalise personal use of some of Class A drugs, has received mixed reactions from the media and wider public.
So, what does decriminalisation actually mean?
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, decriminalisation entails “the removal of all criminal penalties’ from acts relating to drug demand: acts of acquisition, possession, and consumption”.
Under current Irish legislation, persons found to be in possession of a controlled substance for personal use could face sentences of up to seven years. A class C fine of €2,500 can also be imposed at the Judge’s behest.
For opiate users, the penalties are even more stringent. Once again, drug users could face fines of up to €2,500 and a possible prison sentence of 14 years.
Charities like the Ana Liffey Project-a low-threshold, harm reduction organisation, and the Peter McVerry Trust- a charity specifically set up to tackle homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage, have welcomed the new proposal which signals a more compassionate approach to dealing with drug users.
There are several reasons why drug liberalisation laws are a promising idea, not least of which is the impact on vulnerable, and often marginalised persons.
The Portuguese Model
In 2001, Portugal became the poster boy for drug liberalisation laws. Just two years earlier, the country was in midst of a AIDS epidemic and had the highest rate of drug-related cases in all the EU. It also claimed the title, second highest prevalence of HIV amongst injecting drug users-the Government needed to act.
They were one of the first European countries to eliminate jail time for persons possessing small amounts of illicit drugs. Among the drugs it decriminalised were heroin, LSD, cocaine and marijuana. Personal amounts of these drugs amount to less than ten days supply or approximately 25g of herbal Marijuana, 1g of ecstasy, 1g of heroin and 2g of cocaine.
By making drug possession an administrative (similar to a traffic infraction), rather than criminal offence, Portuguese drug users could access treatment facilities without fear of jail time or a criminal record.
Some 14 years later, HIV infections amongst intravenous drug users and drug-related deaths have decreased dramatically. According to constitutional lawyer and journalist, Glenn Greenwald, “none of the nightmare scenarios touted by pre-enactment decriminalisation opponents - from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” - has occurred”.
Several other European countries have since enacted similar drug liberalisation policies including: Czech Republic, Spain, Estonia and Italy. France even controversially opened its first ever supervised injecting centre in October 2016, allowing intravenous drug users access to medical supervision and clean needles.
The Irish Solution to an Irish Problem
If Fine Gael’s proposal is enacted, it is Irish addicts who will benefit most from a new National Drug Strategy seeking to treat possession as a health issue and not a criminal one, not explicitly recreational drug users as some bombastic op-eds like to suggest.
A recently published survey by Drugnet Ireland, suggests that illicit drug-taking amongst 15-64 year olds is on the rise in Ireland with the most commonly used substances being cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. The survey also revealed that cocaine use among the same demographic and young adults aged 15–34 years has more than doubled since 2002.
The findings of another EU report, reveal that while a majority of countries reported decreases in injecting-related HIV cases between 2014 and 2015, Ireland has reported rises to levels not seen for 7 to 8 years.
The 'War on Drugs' has failed and acknowledging that is not the same as condoning drug use. Drug use and addiction is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, one we do well to remember is greatly impacted by the intersections of poverty, social isolation, and class.
By decriminalising possession of small quantities of drugs, we are acknowledging the socioeconomic impacts of drug addiction, and that addicts are people not criminals who would be far better served in a treatment facility than a prison cell. Portugal’s model works, let’s follow suit.