- 02 Aug 19
A unique opportunity has been passed up by the Government to switch from a criminal justice approach to drugs to a health-based one. Instead of decriminalisation, we get a classic fudge...
What are Hot Press’ first thoughts on the Government's proposed new drug strategy? Whilst a slight improvement on the existing Misuse for Drugs Act, which most stakeholders agree is no longer fit for purpose, the ‘three strikes and your out’-style approach discriminates against problematic drug users, who tend to be from deprived backgrounds and are often homeless.
How many middle-class weekend cocaine-takers do you know who’ve been stopped and searched three times by the Gardaí? Very few because that kind of cocaine use usually takes place in the comfort and privacy of people's own homes.
If you’re publicly injecting, which an estimated four hundred people currently are in Dublin alone, and have the resultant haphazard lifestyle, you’re far more likely to come to the attention of the Gardaí and the courts.
In other words, the new law will do little to stop people with serious addiction issues going through the criminal justice system, with the criminal record, stigma and possibility of prison, which that entails.
Overall, while the word on the grapevine had been that a fudge was on the way, there is cause for real disappointment this morning. The overall view expressed by submissions was, as the Government admits, in favour of decriminalisation. It is a shame that the Government's key personnel lacked the courage to see through the logic of that mandate.
Ours is a viewpoint shared by the Ana Liffey Drug Project who were among those making submissions to the Working Group reporting to the Minister for National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, under the chair of Justice Garrett Sheehan.
“For most people, a mandatory referral to a health care assessment is an easy thing to comply with,” they reflect. “For most people, not being found in possession of drugs for personal on multiple occasions is an easy thing to comply with. However, for some people, these things are not easy to comply with. And the people who will have difficulty complying with these requirements are likely to be those who are already facing significant challenges in their lives, such as homelessness, health issues and other complex needs, that combine to make them both more visible to An Garda Síochána and less able to comply with bureaucracy. Although it is not the proposed policy’s intent to further marginalise this group of people, we are deeply concerned that this will be its unintended consequence, and that this would be a policy that would end up compounding poverty and disadvantage as opposed to reducing harm and supporting recovery.
“There should be no limit on the number of times a person can avail of diversion - if personal drug use is a health issue the first time, it is a health issue the hundredth time,” they say. “Using the criminal law to punish someone for not accessing healthcare, or for engaging in behaviours which result in a referral to healthcare on multiple occasions is inconsistent with a health led approach.”
In summary, Ana Liffey say that: “In Ireland we believe that personal drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice one. There is nothing to be gained by criminalising people who use drugs for simple possession – it doesn’t stop people from using drugs, but causes additional harm in and of itself. Moreover, criminalisation is an approach that the working group’s own consultation process reveals is not supported by the Irish people. Finally, any policy which results in the criminalisation of people who use drugs for simple possession is likely to impact most heavily on those who are already marginalised. While this is not the intent, the consequence could be a policy that would end up compounding poverty and disadvantage as opposed to reducing harm and supporting recovery.”