National Drugs Strategy Minister, Catherine Byrne, attended discussions on drug decriminalisation.
Details have been revealed of Dublin Drug Policy Summit, which in January brought together “leading figures from Europe, North America and Australia to discuss two topical issues in drug policy – supervised injecting facilities and decriminalisation.”
These included the Minister for Public Expenditure & Reform, Paschal Donohoe, and National Drugs Strategy Minister, Catherine Byrne, who’s subsequently advanced the Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Centres) Bill 2017 and, according to leaked information, is planning to float the idea of decriminalisation in the new National Drugs Strategy, which is due in the summer.
“These are both concepts which potentially challenge the status quo, and as such they can raise fears for many people,” reflects Dublin Drug Policy Summit Chairperson, Eva Maguire. “They are, however, also topics which are not specific to an Irish context. Indeed, many countries have implemented, or are actively considering implementing, policy in these areas. At the summit, we had the benefit of the expertise and insight of international academics and practitioners in both areas. The purpose of the session was to help Ireland, as a country learn from their experiences as we consider the practicalities of policy change.”
Organised by the Ana Liffey Project, the summit under the Chatham House Rule, whereby the themes of the discussions are reported, but no individual or organisation is identified as having made any particular statement.
The summary notes that, “Decriminalisation does not imply a lack of consequences. However, it does permit a health based, person centred approach to be taken, and avoids the person having the stigma of being criminalised. It is important to be clear in communicating precisely what is meant by ‘decriminalisation’ as this often isn’t clear. Threshold limits are likely to be a necessary part of any decriminalisation model. These must be carefully selected and the approach taken to enforcement must be flexible.
“Whilst there was significant support for decriminalisation as a policy for Ireland at the summit, it was not unanimous, and not all delegates agreed that decriminalisation was the correct drug policy choice for Ireland.
“In general, the issue is in changing the criminal law to decriminalise possession for personal use (and, in some cases, petty, non-violent drug crime), reducing harm and allowing the police and legal system to focus their resources on drug dealers and organised crime.
“Criminalisation itself is in large part responsible for problems like stigmatisation. In moving to a health-led approach it is hoped that in time people will accept that to support people who use drugs problematically, it can be recognised that proper care is required rather than criminalisation. Society at large needs a supportive architecture of compassion to enable perceptions to change.
“There are many ways to decriminalise, or at least reduce criminalisation that have been implemented in other countries. There is no ‘one-size-fits all’, prescriptive solution. As a nation, Ireland must attempt to find a lower level of repression, one that abandons the stance on removing the rights of people to choose which drugs are acceptable. Alcohol and cigarettes were raised as examples of dangerous, addictive substances with huge personal and social costs attached, yet society does not seek to control simple possession or use via the criminal law.
“It was noted that the markets for cigarettes and alcohol are legal and regulated. Though important to distinguish decriminalisation from regulation, it was noted that regulating markets can remove them from the criminal sphere. If done properly, regulation can help States minimise harm by moderating the production and sales environment in the same way that exists for chemicals, medicines and food.”
The Summit also presented a strong case for the pilot medically supervised injecting facility to be situated where the need is most acute, i.e. Dublin city-centre.
“In the context of Dublin, it was noted that a city centre location made sense,” the report continues. “It was also noted that Dublin was not the only location where stakeholders had called for implementation of supervised injecting facilities. In particular, stakeholders in Cork have identified a need for a Supervised Injecting Facility and have identified a suitable building.
“International examples show us that there is no increase in crime associated with the introduction of Supervised Injecting Facilities. There has been some evidence of a reduction in certain types of crime and this should be explored further. Nonetheless, it was noted that supervised injecting is not a criminal justice intervention and should not be expected to impact significantly on crime, either positively or negatively. The key benefits will be in terms of service user health and public amenity.
“There is great interest in the community about where the facility will be located. There are a lot of stakeholders and ‘NIMBYISM’ will undoubtedly be an issue.”
The overall feeling at the Summit was that “criminalisation is harmful" and, in many cases, stops drug users accessing services.
“Prohibitionist policies don’t demonstrably impede drug markets, but they do have other effects,” the report states. “For example, they affect the way professionals engage with drug users. If a service provider becomes aware that a person is in possession of drugs, they must take steps to address this to ensure they are not exposing staff to criminal liability. Under current laws, users are by definition criminals and criminalisation is stigmatising. It can contribute to drug users remaining cautious about accessing services. Thus, there is a fundamental contradiction in the current system, where drug use is recognised as a health issue, but in order to receive assistance for that issue it is necessary for the person to be labelled as a criminal.
“In terms of other jurisdictions, it was noted that in Portugal possession for personal use was decriminalised and responsibility was moved from the criminal justice system and placed under the Ministry for Health. The health administration authority has the power to apply sanctions. In practice, the substance is not the issue but the pattern of use of the individual. Each person needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis.
“The current system in Portugal works better than what was there before. It is much more focused on the person, and because the function is under the Ministry of Health, people are more willing to take the guidance being offered. It is not perceived in the same way as a court of law, which is important. It also allows police to focus on and deal with supply rather than possession.
“The focus in Portugal now is clearly on health issues and health problems. This can be contrasted with the previous situation. Under criminalisation, if a drug user comes for help, he is admitting that he’s a serial criminal. Without this stigma, all other interventions are made easier and more accessible to those who need them.
“In Portugal, decriminalisation was intended to make things be more fluid. It’s important to note that when possession was considered a crime, the courts were generally applying the same sanctions, which are now applied by the Ministry for Health. However, now the sanctions come without the criminal record, the stigma and the expending of large amounts of resources."
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