Let’s talk about… Reforming drug policy

New hope for Ireland’s future drug policy as decriminalisation under consideration

Last week saw Tánaiste Micheál Martin signal support for decriminalising drugs in Ireland, the FF leader backing recent calls from fellow politicians for a more health-led approach to this issue. This comes shortly after TDs James Lawless and Paul McAuliffe called for the legalisation of drugs in Ireland, warning that the current ‘war on drugs’ is simply not working.

Of course they are not wrong in this observation; the entire relevance of this recent conversation surrounding drug decriminalisation/legalisation stems directly from the fact that our current drug policy is blatantly failing us – and has been for quite some time. The more judicial-driven process by which we have been operating for so many years (the ‘war on drugs’ as it were) has not led to meaningful positive results long-term. Not only has drug abuse continued to rise, the current policy also fails to properly accommodate those suffering with addiction; we have among the highest rates of overdoses in the EU (over four times the average) and currently there are more than 3,500 people in Ireland waiting for a detox bed.

This is not to mention the other huge fallacy at the heart of our current drug policy, and that is the disproportionate way in which poorer individuals are targeted and disadvantaged by it. Despite drug use occurring at a pretty similar level across social classes, people from poorer and more marginalised communities are far more likely to be convicted due to heavier Garda presences in their areas. Even beyond the inevitable long-term impact such convictions can have on a person’s ability to find employment, to travel, and to maintain stable relationships (even for minor offences), those who’re less well off are further disadvantaged in that they aren’t able to access the same rehabilitation resources that others can afford when trying to tackle their addiction.

If, as the saying suggests, the definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results’, then we would be out of our minds to not reform our drug policy, having seen how ineffectual the old one has been. An overly judicial approach is always doomed to fail here, because while there are of course many legal angles to this issue, at its core, drug misuse is a public health problem, not a criminal one. In order to see meaningful progress, we need to recognise addicts not as criminals, but as people struggling to battle a serious illness.

Significant changes need to be made, and they need to be made now. And with several TDs (including the Tánaiste) coming forward to speak in favour of moving away from criminalisation and towards a more health-led approach, it would seem that such reform is within reach.

That said, there really doesn’t seem to be enough consensus at the moment on what future drug policy should look like. Though the need for a more health-led approach is well supported, the specifics are where things get murky. In recent weeks, we have seen politicians use the terms ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’ with regards to drugs rather interchangeably, despite these terms meaning two completely different things.

Under decriminalisation, drugs and drug use would remain illegal, but possession of a small amount for personal use would no longer be considered a criminal offence; i.e. the person is decriminalised, not the drugs themselves. Not only would decriminalisation encourage more people to feel they can seek help for their addiction, it would also serve to free up Garda resources, and reduce convictions across the board (which in turn could go a long way in reducing social welfare expenditure). These excess resources could then go towards investing in support and recovery systems, tackling the issue at its root. The efficacy of decriminalisation has been well established, with the most notable example being Portugal, which managed to make a remarkable recovery from a devastating drugs crisis after decriminalising all drugs in 2001 and committing to a health-focused model.

Legalisation, on the other hand, represents a different approach. Here we would see legalisation of (some) drugs and drug use itself – most likely restricted to naturally-occurring substances like mushrooms, cannabis, peyote, etc. These drugs would be taxed and regulated within the legal system, similarly to what we do with alcohol and nicotine, and – per recent suggestions by TDs – would be available to buy at some sort of ‘off-license’ equivalent. This approach would not just offer financial benefits for the country in that taxation on these substances would boost government revenue, it would also mean that the substances people access have been properly regulated and controlled, as opposed to the unsafe, illegal options currently available. The other unique benefit of legalisation as opposed to decriminalisation in terms of tackling substance use is that the former would serve to undermine the business of criminal gangs/dealers.

Of course, given how serious an issue this is, overhauling our drug policy is not a task to be taken lightly. The seriousness of this issue is what sparks so much apprehension for those who fear leaning towards decriminalisation/legalisation may lead to some sort of ‘free for all’ that we wouldn’t be able to recover from. However, it is worth looking at the consistent success other countries have had by introducing these measures in tandem with adequate research and investment in recovery supports.

Already the HSE has begun opting for evidence-based harm-reduction measures (supervised injection facilities, needle exchanges, substitute treatment for opiods, etc.), and this has been received well. But the contrast between this evolving approach in the heath sector and the strict prohibition that persists in the legal system is blocking us from achieving the progress that’s possible.

Tackling all the different aspects of this issue requires a combined approach, and in order for any reform to happen successfully, a rigorous and comprehensive framework that prioritises citizens’ health and wellbeing must be developed. There’s a distinct lack of political consensus across parties on whether decriminalisation or legalisation specifically is being advocated for, and a lack of general consensus among the public about whether such a radical policy change is the way to go at all, but surely one thing we can all agree on is that the current system isn’t working and something has to change.

A Citizens’ Assembly on drugs is expected to take place later this year, and will hopefully give the public some clarity and the opportunity to learn more about the different aspects of this growing problem, and the best way to tackle it. We have let this issue become exacerbated due to sticking with an inefficient drug policy for so many years; now the key priority has to be establishing a more progressive system that prioritises this as the public health issue it is.