Could drug decriminalisation ever fly high in Ireland?

Ciara O'Loughlin

The European Drug Report 2018 shows the common use of drugs like cannabis and MDMA across the continent.

DCU students will be asked to vote on the student union’s stance on drug decriminalisation in the spring. 

The referendum was initiated by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy society, who launched a petition several weeks ago.

Decriminalisation does not mean that drugs will be legally and freely available. This is legalisation, which would see the lifting or abolishment of laws banning the possession and personal use of drugs, whereas, decriminalisation would allow a small amount of drugs for personal use without getting arrested.

According to CityWide Drugs Crisis, possession of drugs for personal use made up 72 per cent of all drug offences in 2017. Decriminalisation would free up space in Irish prisons and put those caught in possession through the health-care system rather than the justice system.

Chairperson of the DCU SSDP, Declan Moore, hopes that the referendum will take place at the same time as the Student Union elections. He said that they plan to ask the SU nominees about their stance on drug decriminalisation and get DCU students talking about the issue.

“The reason we see such positive outcomes from decriminalisation is because it is essentially another form of harm reduction,” he said.

However, he also explained that simply decriminalising isn’t enough and that for the model to work funds would need to be reallocated into the health care system.

“It is not a case of tomorrow morning we wake up and you can walk the streets of Dublin with a specific number of drugs and you won’t get a criminal record,” he explained to The College View.

Twenty-seven year-old Donal smoked cannabis for two years, spending €125 a week on his addiction. When asked his views on decriminalisation, he said “I don’t think it will do much either way to be honest. I think if you’re curious you will try it whether it’s legal or not. Some people will try it and decide it’s not for them. Others will stay on as users, this is happening anyway regardless”.

Anna Quigley, Coordinator for the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, has said that there needs to be a change in the law to not just reduce the criminalisation but also the stigmatisation of disadvantaged communities.

“The evidence shows that our current approach of criminalising people for possession of drugs does not reduce the overall levels of drug use in society, but what it does do is increase the difficulties and challenges for a person who is trying to address his/her drug use,” she added.

Dublin GAA star, Philly McMahon, premiered his documentary ‘The Hardest Hit’ last October. McMahon lost his brother to a drug overdose in 2012. In the documentary, he visits Portugal who has decriminalised drugs and compared their situation to that in Ireland.

Portugal brought in drug decriminalisation in 2001. At this time, according to Dr Jao Goulao, one of the main drivers behind Portugal’s drug policy addiction in Portugal was “cutting across all social groups, it was not something just affecting marginalised communities”. Seventeen years later, Portugal has now the second lowest deaths due to overdose, according to the European Drug Report 2018.

Portugal isn’t the only country with decriminalisation, it is just the most radical. In a case study by CityWide, other European countries that have some form of model of drug decriminalisation implemented are Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy.

Sara Monks, a social care worker from Dublin, says that she would be in agreement with decriminalisation, however, that it is definitely not black or white.

“One problem is that dealers could benefit from this by getting more people to carry drugs for them with whatever the personal amount allowed will be,” she told The College View.

A working group was set up by Minister of State for Health Promotion, Catherine Byrne, to tackle Ireland’s drug issue and implement some form of decriminalisation. The outcome of that report will be out in the next two months.

Declan Moore doesn’t think that the possibility of a drug policy reform in Ireland is out of reach.  “I don’t think it is outside the realm of possibility. Anna Liffey maintain that by 2022 they are quite confident that we will have some form of decriminalisation drug policy in practice,” he explained.

Ciara O’Loughlin

Image Credit: European Drug Report 2018