Decriminalisation of limited amounts of drugs for personal use in Ireland would involve changing the current law that defines possession of drugs for personal use as a criminal offence.1 This does not mean that possession for personal use would be legal, as an administrative offence and civil sanctions may still be applied. Furthermore, it would not affect the law that makes the possession of drugs for sale or supply a criminal offence. Decriminalisation is currently being considered by a working group jointly led by the Department of Health and the Department of Justice and Equality. The group was established in December 2017 to deliver on a commitment in the national drugs strategy to ‘consider the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use with a view to making recommendations on policy options to the relevant Minister within 12 months’ (p. 58).2 The group has undertaken research and consultation to identify alternatives to the current system and to ensure that any alternatives would be appropriate in the Irish context.
The debate has attracted the attention of many of those working with people who use drugs, including the Ana Liffey Drug Project (ALDP) and the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign.3 Since 2015, the International Drug Policy Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has been working with ALDP with the aim of advocating for and supporting progressive drug policies in Ireland. As part of this work, they have informed and facilitated discussions in Ireland about the decriminalisation of small amounts of drugs for personal use. There have been two recent outputs from this collaboration: a series of ‘town hall’ type meetings and the publication of the report Not criminals, which explores various aspects of decriminalisation.4
Town hall meetings
The first of a national series of town hall style meetings to increase awareness and understanding of what progressive drug policy is, with a particular focus on decriminalisation, was held in Wood Quay Venue, Dublin on 12 June 2018. Panel members were Dr John Collins, director of the International Drug Policy Unit at LSE; Tony Duffin and Marcus Keane of ALDP; and Anna Quigley of CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign. Contributions were also made by GAA sportsman Philly McMahon and writer and actor Emmet Kirwan. Panelists highlighted the change in the Government drugs strategy towards a more health-led approach, away from dealing with drug use and addiction as a criminal issue. The current legal situation in Ireland was described, alongside what decriminalisation might look like here, all of which were placed in the context of international evidence on the topic.
In October 2018, Not criminals was launched.4 Speakers at the launch were Marcus Keane, Dr John Collins, Prof Catherine Comiskey of Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Nuno Capaz, vice-president of Portugal’s Drug Addiction Dissuasion Commission. The report provides ‘an evidence source on the adoption of a health led approach to the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use’ (p. 3).4 Ireland is described as being at a pivotal point in drug policy. The national drugs strategy offers an opportunity for policymakers to act on its health-led focus by legislating for decriminalisation. The report maps the evolution of international and national drug policy; describes in detail the law in Ireland as it relates to simple possession; presents evidence of the impact the current system has for users; and provides an overview of decriminalisation in Portugal and the Czech Republic.
There has been a shift in the international policy debate away from considering criminal law as the best way to address personal drug use. The harms of criminalising the use of drugs are well documented and alternative approaches are being considered internationally. While Ireland’s current national drugs strategy reflects a health-led position in line with this shift, through an analysis of Oireachtas debates the authors found that a focus on users’ health is not new in Irish drug policy. While possession for personal use has been criminalised in Ireland since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1977,5 punishment was not a primary focus of policymakers at the time. The debates that preceded the introduction of the 1977 Act illustrate that they were concerned about the health of people using drugs and considered them in need of care rather than punishment.
Despite this, section 3 of the 1977 Act allows for the punishment of those found in possession of controlled substances for personal use. The penalties applied vary and depend on a number of factors, most importantly whether the substance is cannabis or another controlled substance, and whether this is the person’s first offence. While penalties can include up to seven years in prison, the report concludes that in practice the system takes a more humane approach. It notes that the Director of Public Prosecution elects for summary disposal in all cases of simple possession. Despite this more humane approach, a significant number of people are affected by this law each year: ‘In 2017, there were 12,201 recorded incidents of possession of drugs for personal use, representing over 70% of all drug related offences. The District Court received 20,746 drugs offences involving 13,033 defendants in 2016’ (p. 35).4
Impact of criminalisation
The negative impact of criminalising people for their drug use is illustrated, for example, by stigmatising people and limiting their future employment opportunities. Indeed, criminalising possession as a policy response is not considered effective – it is reported that there is no clear link between the harshness of a country’s policy on possession of drug use and levels of drug use. In turn the available evidence does not support the argument that decriminalisation has an effect on broader trends such as prevalence. Indeed, where it has been introduced, as part of a comprehensive policy approach, decriminalisation has been found to be associated with a range of positive health and social outcomes.
Based on their examination of the international evidence and the legal and policy context in Ireland, the authors make three recommendations (p. 5):4
1 That Ireland decriminalise possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Continued criminalisation of people who use drugs is unsupportable by the best available evidence as a policy choice, and is in stark contradiction to a health-led policy for drug use.
2 That, in designing such a policy, the focus is on pragmatic interventions which focus on health, and include the following:
(a) Threshold limits which are reasonable, reflect the lived experience of people who use drugs and which serve as broad guidelines, not as inflexible standards. To protect against people attempting to thwart the system, intent should also be a key consideration for decision makers where people are in possession of small amounts
(b) Sanctions which are not punitive, but solely health based, supportive, voluntary and with as many opportunities afforded to the individual as needed. The sanctions chosen should recognise that not all drug use is problematic, and where possible, utilise existing structures and services, with defined pathways and interventions set in advance
(c) Decisions that are taken as close to the first point of contact as possible
(d) Training for health workers, educators, law enforcement and judiciary on the aims and implementation of the new system
3 That any policy that is introduced be independently evaluated in terms of implementation and impact, and that adequate resources be made available for this purpose.
At both the town hall meeting in Dublin and the launch of the report, audiences overwhelmingly welcomed the proposal to decriminalise. However, there were concerns expressed by some attending the events that decriminalisation could be perceived as sending a message to young people that drug use is no longer problematic and that the prevalence of use might increase. Feedback at both sessions would also suggest that there is a lack of understanding among some of those working in the area and the public more generally about what decriminalisation is and how it differs from legalisation and regulation. The working group was due to report to the Minister of State with responsibility for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy by the end of 2018.
1 The term ‘decriminalisation’ is used for the remainder of this article to refer to the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use.
2 Department of Health (2017) Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017–2025. Dublin: Department of Health. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27603/
3 The CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign website on decriminalisation was covered in issue 63 of Drugnet Ireland. It can be accessed on: https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/28230/ and https://www.citywide.ie/decriminalisation/
4 Keane M, Csete J, Collins J and Duffin T (2018) Not criminals: underpinning a health-led approach to drug use. Dublin: Ana Liffey Drug Project and London School of Economics and Political Science. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29791/
5 Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. Available online at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1977/act/12/enacted/en/html