- 02 Aug 19
In the Department of Health's own words: "There was overall support for the removal of criminal penalties for those found in possession of illegal drugs for personal use." Despite this, however, the criminal penalties remain, albeit in revised form
The Government has decide to ignore calls for the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use, in a new set of proposals issued today. By remaining within the criminal justice system, the new Government Proposals on the Possession of Drugs for Personal Use flies in the face of the Public Consultation process initiated by the Minister for National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, which sought “Alternative Approaches to the Possession of Drugs For Personal Use”.
The 20,000-plus online submissions made between May 31 and July 13, 2018 were the highest response to any public consultation in the Department of Health. Despite this, the Working Group reporting to Catherine Byrne and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has decided to ignore the "overall support" for Ireland to go the same decriminalisation route as Portugal. For many, it represents a weak and cowardly decision – perhaps by a government that is too occupied by Brexit to do the right thing.
In the copy of the report previously seen by Hot Press, it was noted in the Department of Health Conclusions that:
• Across the three strands of the consultation there was overall support for the removal of criminal penalties for those found in possession of illegal drugs for personal use.
• Criminalising drug use tended to be viewed as ineffective in reducing or preventing drug use. Instead it was generally perceived to stigmatise and further marginalise people affected by drug use and have a negative impact on their future life chances.
• The findings suggest a lack of clarity among members of the public about the distinction between decriminalisation on the one hand and legalisation on the other.
• It was widely thought that the harm caused by different substances was not necessarily reflected in their legal status. The harm caused by alcohol in Irish society was a recurring theme and cannabis was generally viewed as much less harmful than other illegal drugs, and in some cases alcohol.
• Within an alternative model where drug use was not subject to criminal sanctions but people would be subject to some sort of assessment process, it was repeatedly suggested that any referral should be based on the circumstances of the individual, and not simply the specific substance of which they were found in possession. The more problematic a person's use, the higher the level of response required. For example, ‘recreational’ cannabis use may require either no intervention or possibly drug awareness/education, whereas problematic heroin use may require a referral to treatment services.
• The consultation highlighted the complexities involved in both the causes and the responses needed to drug use. While there was overall support for moving away from a model that criminalises drug use, there was some ambiguity about how to do so. People expressed caution that this would need to be done in a way that would not ‘send the wrong message’ to young people in particular about the harms of drug use. Also, while only 8.5% thought that the current approach prevents or reduces drug use, concerns were expressed that changing it might result in an increase in drug use. This finding highlights the need for the government to take an evidence based-approach to addressing this complex issue. Experiences in other jurisdictions, like Portugal, have certainly confirmed a significant decrease in harm, as a result of decriminalisation.
• Any change in the approach would require additional resources to ensure that appropriate services were available. Improved access to treatment services was mentioned in particular.
So, to recap, the Working Group has decided to ignore what for many, including Hot Press, believe was the key conclusion of the consultation process – the decriminalisation of those found in possession of illegal drugs for personal use.