- 28 Jan 20
Last night's RTÉ Leaders' Debate suggested that, in order to enter into any possible coalition with the Greens, Leo Varadkar may have to be prepared to go the Portugal route – and that he is moving in that direction...
The issue of drugs has been centre stage in the general election campaign to date. And it has been for a reason: alone among media, Hot Press has consistently striven to move the debate forward, and to take the country away from the discredited 'War On Drugs' era.
It was in that context that, in 2010, we asked Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar – then a rising young star in the party – about his use of recreational drugs. He answered honestly at the time, and it has to be said, adroitly. He admitted to having smoked cannabis, and – when asked about his use of other drugs – said that he had been law-abiding since he had been elected to public office.
It may have been the product of some digging by rival political parties, but it should not have come as a surprise when quotes from that lengthy interview were raised in the course of the current election campaign.
The Taoiseach seemed uncharacteristically discommoded by the questions, most notably in the Virgin Media Television debate last week between the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, which was chaired by Pat Kenny. However, having previously displayed all the signs of wanting to kick the issue into touch, on last night's RTÉ Leaders' Debate, conducted by Claire Byrne, Leo Varadkar came out strongly in favour of a progressive health-based approach to illegal drugs. It may well be a portent of things to come.
This certainly represents a major shift by the Taoiseach, and by Fine Gael, from the firm anti-decriminalisation stance taken by Leo Varadkar when the issue first arose during the campaign.
Out at RTÉ, Leo Varadkar said that he “absolutely agreed” with the statement made during the debate by Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.
Eamon Ryan's opening salvo was this: “We believe that the whole approach to drug use should be through a health-based system rather than just a criminal justice-based system because that approach has not worked. If you look at where other countries have applied that health-based approach, like in Portugal, it has better health results and better criminal results. We’re sending people into prison who are not drug addicts and are coming out drug addicts. We need to make sure that we help the person and tackle the problem at source, rather than the criminal approach, which has not worked.”
In response to Eamon Ryan's stance, the Taoiseach added that: “We did look at the Portuguese model, which is full decriminalisation and decided not to go that far. But we have decided as a government to move towards a health and education-lead approach because it really isn’t a good idea to give a young person who’s found to be in possession of a small amount of drugs a criminal conviction. All you do is make it harder for them to get a job; harder for them to get a visa to go to the States. You kind of push them down the pathway of criminality, and that’s why we’ve already decided as a government to go towards a health and education approach; telling people about the health risks of drugs and also educating them about how they’re actually fuelling crime by buying drugs. So I agree with him on that.”
In case you’re wondering, no, it’s not just you who finds the Taoiseach’s thinking on all of this slightly muddled. But it is nonetheless a significant step in the right direction.
Eamon Ryan made the case for decriminalisation with such gusto that Hot Press wonders whether it might be a red line issue for the Greens if, based on the outcome of the election, they were to consider going into coalition with another party or parties.
Was Leo Varadkar signalling to Eamon Ryan that he would in fact be willing to play ball on drug decriminalisation? We could find out in a couple of weeks.
It is worth recalling that there was widespread dismay in the drug services community last year when the Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, announced that instead of going the Portuguese-style decriminalisation route, as had been widely mooted, Fine Gael were opting for the expansion of the existing drug diversion scheme.
By the Government’s own admission, keeping drugs under the remit of An Garda Síochána instead of making it a health issue flew in the face of the public consultation process, which was in favour of decriminalisation.
It’s Hot Press’ understanding that whilst key elements within the Department of Health were pro-decriminalisation, the Department of Justice was totally opposed to the adoption of the model that has proved so successful in Portugal, and which is currently being looked at by several other European countries.
It is often said that one of the biggest problems with Irish politicians is that they tend to listen to those who shout the loudest – and the feeling amongst those on the coalface of drug intervention was that certain elements within the Gardaí and the Department of Justice won the megaphone diplomacy war. But the hope is that this may – belatedly – be about to change.