- 04 Jul 19
We're calling on the Taoiseach to decriminalise drugs for personal use in Ireland, and intervene to get Dublin's medically Supervised Injecting Facility up and running
When asked by Hot Press in 2011 whether you’d ever smoked cannabis, with commendable honesty you answered: “Yeah, I did a bit in my college years.”
Asked whether you’d experimented with ecstasy or any other illegal drugs as a teen, you were slightly less forthcoming, saying: “Not since I’ve held elected office, anyway. I’ve been extremely law-abiding since I’ve been elected to politics.”
There might have been a smile on your face when you said this. It was a good answer in that it required no outrageous contortions on your part, nor any bending of the truth.
In recent weeks, this answer has been seized on by several media outlets, most notably The Irish Independent, in the wake of the admission by the British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, that he had snorted cocaine when he was in his twenties.
In Hot Press, we do not believe that anybody should be shamed or have to apologise for his or her drug use, whether current or historical. What we do think is wrong and shameful is that somebody who themselves has taken drugs, but not been prosecuted for it, as is currently the case with many Irish politicians, would support the criminalisation of those who have gone to court and been convicted.
This is not a criticism of you personally. On the contrary, it is, rather, an appeal to your personal integrity. You gave us honest answers. We believe that you are capable of following through on these in an honest and compassionate way.
• The inescapable truth is that under current Irish law, had you been caught smoking cannabis during your time at Trinity College and convicted, you would have been denied entry – either permanently or for a period of time – to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the US, most of which you have visited as Taoiseach.
• You would have had difficulty passing Garda vetting processes, which could have jeopardised your original career as a general practitioner.
• You would have had severe difficulties working as a teacher or a psychotherapist or in any other job, which involves access to children.
• It’s also possible that a criminal conviction would have prevented you from becoming a TD and going on to hold the highest political office in the land.
Lest any of this read like hyperbole, the Gardai currently advise that: “A conviction under the Misuse of Drugs Act can affect future employment prospects and many countries refuse visas to people with drug convictions. Misuse will often invalidate insurance policies, including holiday, vehicle and health cover.”
Those are stark thoughts to be borne in mind, when it comes to deciding the next steps that should be taken in relation to drug policy in Ireland.
We must ask you this question directly: should people have entire professions denied to them, and not be able to travel freely, for no greater offences than those which you have admitted to? Should they have been expelled from school or college, as has happened in many cases? Should they have been sent to prison or suffered mental health problems, which are compounded by the stigma and shame that they’ve had to carry around with them as a result of being charged and convicted?
We understand that in the next two weeks, the Irish Government will make a decision on an alternative approach to the possession of drugs for personal use. This is an opportunity to correct a 42-year-old mistake, which started in 1977 with the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
It could be a hugely positive, watershed moment in the evolution of Irish society – but only if you and your colleagues show the same political bravery that you did in supporting same sex marriage, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and amending the regulations around divorce.
One of the options that we understand will be considered by cabinet is a programme whereby people found in possession of a certain amount of drugs are diverted by Gardai for a health assessment and possible referral to treatment. This has begun in the UK recently in areas such as Durham and Thames Valley. However, police forces there have implemented these policies themselves because of the lack of leadership from Westminster. Ireland has a real opportunity to do things better.
This is why we urge you to go another of the routes that we believe is being considered, which is decriminalisation.
Since decriminalising drugs for personal use in 2001, and investing in complementary treatment and harm reduction services, Portugal has seen a dramatic shift for the better in all of the key indicators.
• Annual overdose deaths fell from 300 to 23.
• Problematic drug use has halved.
• HIV infection rates have similarly plummeted.
• And the wait-time for residential treatment has gone from months to weeks.
This is the kind of great leap forward that is within our grasp. Yes, there may be associated political risks in implementing a policy of decriminalisation. But we believe that Irish people really do not want their sons and daughters – or those of their neighbours and friends – to be criminalised unnecessarily. They do not want the current status quo – which in any event is a huge, ongoing cost to the Exchequer – to continue. They want to see the level of drug addiction and dependency reduced.
Let us be clear about what the figures tell us. Ireland’s population is half that of Portugal’s, yet we currently average one overdose death per day – which, on a per capita basis, is twenty times Portugal’s rate of mortality. The statistics speak for themselves: decriminalisation works, not least in saving lives.
You’ve spoken many times of wanting a just society in which everybody is afforded the same opportunities. If this is indeed the case, you need in the coming weeks to decriminalise drugs, and expunge the criminal records of anybody with past convictions for personal use.
We know from your going backstage with LCD Soundsystem and writing to Kylie that you are a music fan. Talking recently to Pete Doherty, who’s been open about his battles with heroin, he said to us, “I don’t understand this whole need to punish thing. If somebody gets cancer, you don’t go, ‘Make an example of ‘em, take them to court and give them a criminal record that stays with them for life.’ You show them kindness and empathy. You support them. Why do we treat another form of debilitating illness, addiction, differently?”
It’s a very good question, to which we can find no sensible answer. Because when someone goes to jail for possession of drugs, far more often than not, they are sucked into friendships with others of a more criminal bent. The level of recidivism is high. It is the road to nowhere. Prohibition has failed, the reasons for drug use are complex and there is no clear link between the harshness of a country’s policy on possession of drugs for personal use and levels of drug use. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again – and expect different results.
You also showed an act of political bravery in September 2015 when, as Minister for Health, you were party to the cabinet decision to pilot the country’s first medically Supervised Injecting Facility in Dublin. The Oireachtas passed the necessary amendments to the law in May 2017, and the tender to run the centre was awarded in February 2018 to Merchant’s Quay Ireland. You’ll know from your own visit to Merchant’s Quay in December last year that they’re ready to roll out the service, but due to objections from local businesses, residents and others with what might best be described as vested interests, they won’t be able to open until 2020 at the earliest.
This shocking 40-month lag in opening the Dublin SIF is in stark contrast to Melbourne, where the Victorian State Government went from decision to implementation in just eight months. Your former ministerial colleague, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordain of the Labour Party, baldly says that, “People are dying because of these delays.” Taoiseach, will you please personally intervene to break this logjam?
Meanwhile, the Cork Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force have, with the support of the HSE locally, identified a building in which to set up their own medically Supervised Injecting Facility. They’re ready to go too, but have been told that they’ll have to wait for the Merchant’s Quay SIF to be up and running for at least eighteen months before their plans are considered. Again, we would ask you to personally intervene and make this Cork facility part of the pilot scheme.
We are not naive enough to imagine that these are not big, and in certain respects difficult, issues. But what is clear is that the so called War On Drugs has failed – nowhere in Europe more so than in Ireland, where the levels of addiction to heroin are exceptionally high, and where a vast number of inmates in Irish prisons are there because of drug-related offences. A new paradingm is needed.
Decriminalisation must be the first step. That it would be intellectually and morally consistent with your own admissions in the past to Hot Press only underlines the fact that it is the right thing to do.
It is the logical next chapter in building the admirably open, compassionate, caring Ireland towards which we have been moving, with the results of the referenda on Same Sex Marriage, Repealing the 8th and Divorce Law.
We appeal to you to be brave.
For the Hot Press editorial team