- 16 Jun 20
"The human rights of people who use drugs must inform Ireland's future drugs policy," says their Executive Director, Liam Herrick, in an exclusive Hot Press op-ed piece
Liam Herrick was appointed to Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) in November 2016. Prior to his appointment, he worked as Advisor to President Michael D. Higgins for almost three years. Liam was Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) between 2007 and 2014. He has also worked as the first head of legislation and policy at the former Irish Human Rights Commission and with the Law Reform Commission and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Here are his thoughts on the convening of a Citizens' Assembly to consider matters relating to drugs...
The details of the proposed programme for government between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have been published. While the deal is not over the line just yet, it includes a provision for convening a Citizens’ Assembly to ‘consider matters relating to drug use’. The detail is vague, but it is to be welcomed that drug policy remains high on the political agenda. If there is a downside it is the perception that the issue has been kicked down the road and that our politicians have passed the buck on making a decision. A decision that should be based on research and experience in other jurisdictions where treating drug use as a health, not a criminal, issue brings better social, health and community outcomes.
Not even a year has passed since the working group to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use, chaired by Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan was published. At the time the report was published, in August 2019, I stated that the government decision not to decriminalise personal possession of drugs was a missed opportunity to improve lives. As we now look set to continue the debate on modernising our drug policy in Ireland - it’s critical to note that people who use drugs in Ireland are a group who experience discrimination, stigmatisation and violations of their human rights in multiple ways, including through the persistent use of the criminal justice system to address what national policy recognises as a health issue.
The criminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use is problematic on many levels. It infringes on the right to health, because it creates a barrier to accessing health care services and to support systems. Numerous cases from around the world show that criminalisation is inconsistent with the right to privacy. The subordination of a health issue to criminal justice interferes with the prohibition of discrimination in the context of vindicating rights. A policy of criminalisation deliberately and consciously generates social disapproval and stigma of people who use drugs. It is important to note that this is the intent of criminalisation, and not merely a consequence of it. Stigmatisation is harmful – it can push people into unsafe environments, exposing them to health risks and isolation. It can have serious consequences for the physical and mental well-being and health of individuals, and can negatively impact their relationships, families and communities. In addition to stigma, criminalisation also creates unnecessary barriers to employment, housing, travel, education and other areas of life. Criminalisation impacts the opportunity to live a full life free from discrimination. One of the most concerning aspects of a policy of criminalising the possession of drugs for personal use is that it risks disproportionately impacting those who are already marginalised. There is a clear link between problematic drug use and disadvantage, and identified factors that increase vulnerability to drug misuse are mental health problems, poverty, lack of resources and social exclusion. These issues need to be at the forefront of discussion in Ireland today.
The government has proposed adopting a new approach to the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. As we move forward as a nation, we must be confident that our chosen policy is fully consistent with our commitments to international human rights standards, and supports our public bodies to comply with their statutory obligations under Irish law. We must ensure that policy in this area is consistent with the health led, person centred approach enshrined in our national drugs strategy and we must avoid using the criminal law to deal with our public health and social issues.
A Citizens' Assembly to consider matters relating to drug use would no doubt hear personal testimonies of how Ireland’s current drug policy has impacted upon a person’s life and it would hear evidence from expert witnesses. However, to reach a policy that guarantees better social, health and community outcomes, the protection and vindication of the human rights of people who use drugs in Ireland need to form the bedrock of the discussion.