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Ireland is set to decriminalise drug use - should the UK?

The country is on the verge of introducing supervised injecting rooms for intravenous drug users, enacting Portugal’s model of relaxing the laws considerably

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For Irish society, this could be the biggest change in government policy since gay marriage was legalised in May. At a speech given to the London School of Economics, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish minister in charge of drugs strategy, outlined a number of proposals for the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use and the introduction of supervised injecting rooms for intravenous drug users.

A few days later, the Oireachtas Justice committee, charged with investigating this issue, unanimously recommended that both proposals be signed into law, if not by this government then by the next. Elections are due to take place in Ireland next year. So how has he managed to do this? Is it a good idea? And what are the implications for the country?

The Report on a Harm Reducing and Rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs is the culmination of only a few months work beginning in June 2015, when the committee identified close links between illegal drug use and serious crime. Then, a fact finding mission to Portugal, a country where similar policies have been enacted with great success since being introduced in 2001. The committee then sought submissions from “a wide range of interested stakeholder groups and individuals.” A meeting involving these groups was then held in October, with the conclusion drawn that Ireland should adopt Portugal’s model.


This all seems to have happened so fast and that is because it has. Almost two years ago to the day, Luke “Ming” Flanagan TD (MP) brought proposals before Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) to legalise cannabis. The attitude of the government and media at this time was akin to the "reefer madness" of mid-20th century America. The proposals were almost unanimously voted down and laughed out of the Dáil by the government. So how has Ó Ríordáin succeeded where Flanagan failed? According to Dr Garrett McGovern, an addiction specialist and long-time advocate for an overhaul of the national drug strategy, it’s a matter of flexing muscle. “What he’s done essentially is he’s exerted his power, whatever power he has. Now we’re never sure what power these politicians have, or what goes on behind the scenes, but he’s obviously a man of his convictions and he’s going through with this.”

Ó Ríordáin has obviously seen the problem and sought expert advice. He’s taken it on board, which is rare for a government minister, and is now in the process of getting the proposals enshrined in law. Comparatively, the man chosen to chair a committee debating new UK drugs law, David Amess, was tricked into condemning the fake new drug scourge “cake” by satirical Channel 4 show Brasseye in 1997. Such was his outrage at the “big yellow death bullet” that Amess sought action in the UK parliament, much to the amusement of the viewing public and I suspect the show’s creator, Chris Morris. If the UK is serious about tackling its own drug and related crime problem then surely a less gullible individual is needed to head this committee.

We caught up with Graham de Barra, of Help Not Harm“The Portuguese model is a really great fit for Ireland, because it’s a small country with many similar religious and cultural traditions,” he says. “That’s the main reason why Portugal was engaged the way it was. That’s why the fact finding visit was to Portugal and not for example to Spain or Colorado or other places with similar programmes”.

Economic factors could also be added to that list. Portugal and Ireland have suffered similar economic fates and Portugal had similar rates for drug usage, deaths and related crime to that of Ireland before decriminalisation. While in Portugal, de Barra met with Dr. João Goulão, the man who has been Portugal’s drugs tsar over the last 15 years.

“What I learned from him and his experience is that the societal benefits of decriminalisation mainly come down to helping people who are using drugs not to feel stigmatised, alienated from society,” says de Barra. “Currently, if you have a fear of conviction, or were convicted, or brought through the courts. There’s a huge stigma around that and that can be very damaging if you’re a student or a young person. If an individual has a conviction they have to declare it therefore barring them from certain sectors of society. They can’t get a public service job, pursue a career in teaching or work with children. If a person has invested four years of their life and spent €10-20,000 putting themselves through university and they get a conviction within that time then it has all been for nothing. We arrest 40 people every day for drug offences in Ireland and the wider societal benefits to not doing that is saving in crime and police resources that can go towards harder crimes.”

“Those who need help should be able to present as having a problem and receive help accordingly rather than be stigmatised and prosecuted”

These resources could be redirected towards solving unsolved murder cases especially around drug related gun crime and stabbings, rape, assault, tackle preventable drug deaths, open new treatment centres and help house the ever growing homeless population to name but a few. The influence of criminal gangs, particularly in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods of the city, would be reduced by a more effective and targeted Garda (Police) strategy. These gangs have little or no influence in affluent areas of the city where cocaine is the drug of choice, but wield power through fear, intimidation, violence and heroin in suburban areas. Such an approach in the UK would undoubtedly help with its own gang-related problems.

If decriminalisation and clean injecting rooms were introduced, drug related deaths would dramatically reduce, just as they have in Portugal. Ireland has one of the highest drug related death rates in Europe with 58.5 deaths per million inhabitants. The UK has a similar problem, particularly surrounding deaths from the lethal drug PMMA, which has hit the UK and Ireland hard over the last few years. These could be almost eliminated with the introduction of pill testing machines throughout the islands. Furthermore, without fear of prosecution those who have a problem would be more willing to come forward and seek treatment for their addiction.

People take drugs, that is a fact. There is no reason for people to unnecessarily die from a lifestyle choice. Some people take drugs sometimes for recreational use, others are addicted, but in either scenario neither should be criminally prosecuted as a result. Those who need help should be able to present as having a problem and receive help accordingly rather than be stigmatised and prosecuted. Irish attitudes are changing rapidly, maybe we need to switch our stance too.