Criminalising possession doesn’t discourage use – We need real solutions


Criminalising possession doesn’t discourage use – We need real solutions

10 March 2016

The last year has seen Ireland make huge strides in how we think about drug policy. As we face into an uncertain political future in Ireland, it is important that we maintain this momentum and keep driving towards policies that work.

This is particularly true in 2016 as our own National Drug Strategy only runs to the end of the year, and as global drug policy is considered at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. Regardless of the composition of the incoming government, there are a few key messages we can keep focused on.

The ‘War on Drugs’ is over

The way that we have historically addressed drugs and drug use globally has been an expensive failure. It is now widely recognised that drugs and drug use are not discrete issues to be ‘solved’ by criminal justice mechanisms. Rather, much more benefit and value can be accrued from having a health focus, which is why the London School of Economics have called for a massive global shift from criminal justice spending to health spending.

The simple reality is that the primary reason we spend money on the criminal justice side is supply control. We want dealers off the street, which means that there are less drugs available for sale, price will go up and demand will go down, shrinking the size of the market. The problem is that it doesn’t work like that.

The UNODC estimates that only 3% of pure heroin that is imported into Ireland is seized. Our best efforts have only a temporary impact on price and availability, and consequently do not significantly affect either supply or demand in the market.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to control supply or have sanctions for those that deal in illegal substances, merely that the way we are currently addressing these issues is ineffective and expensive.

A Health Focus

As an example, in our zeal to criminalise dealing so we can control supply, we have also criminalised those who use drugs. It is not only an offence to possess for the purposes of supply, but also just to possess for personal use.

Criminalising possession in this way does not really discourage use – rates of problematic drug use in societies are largely independent of a simple criminalise / decriminalise variable – but it does have repercussions.

It disproportionately impacts on people from poorer areas, it acts as a barrier to future employment for people convicted, and permits negative stereotyping of drug users. It’s easy to label someone a criminal in this way, but this doesn’t solve anything.

This is why grassroots community organisations like Citywide have been outspoken in their calls for the decriminalisation of possession. It is also why a Joint Oireachtas Committee – with cross party and cross house membership – also concluded that possession for personal use was best dealt with outside the ambit of the criminal law.

However, not only have we criminalised those who use drugs, but also potentially those who work with people who use drugs. Our current laws contain a range of permissive offences – so for example, not only is it a crime to possess drugs, but it is a crime to permit someone else to possess or use drugs on your premises.

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