Olivia Teahan, Auditor of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Society UCC, speaks about why a reform of Ireland’s drug laws are necessary.
The Cork chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) was first set up almost three years ago under the name Drug Awareness and Reform Society. It has since become the national platform for students to discuss drug policy in an open and honest manner. SSDP is made up of students who spread awareness of the failures of Irish drug policy, such as the fact that current laws do not bring justice or safety to the people of Ireland. Both drug-users and non-users are left very vulnerable by our laws.
Young people are incriminated for non-violent drug offences every day despite the likes of expert medics, Gardaí, economists and scientists saying that it is unjust, nonsensical and a waste of police time. SSDP advocates for evidence-based policies and for drug-related issues to be looked at from a public health perspective.
Drug policy has been topical in places such as Uruguay and Colorado for much longer than it has been in Ireland. It’s important to give a professional platform to Irish universities as this is where the next generation of politicians will come from – we need them to be aware of the urgent issues concerning drug policy in Ireland and the positive effects that could come from policy reform.
Drug-related violence is often used as a reason to promote drug prohibition and the complete elimination of drugs from our society, but in fact the system of drug prohibition and current drug policy causes much of the violence. This is seen more intensely outside of Ireland, with the Mexico border being a prime example of the danger created by drug prohibition laws.
Drug prohibition creates an underground market which is permeated by violent crime. The illegality of drugs causes the price and profit to rise significantly and thus competition for drug markets is heightened, often through violence. In 1980, there were fifty-thousand people jailed in the United States for drug law violations – now there are over half a million. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, yet drugs are still widely available and treatment resources are insufficient. Similarly in Ireland the state wastes money enforcing ineffective policies and thus deprives other very important services of funding.
The fact that drugs are harmful to health is another reason given to promote drug prohibition. Indeed all kinds of drugs, whether legal or illegal, have potential to be very harmful, and for this very reason we need to try to limit their harmful effects. We cannot do this in the current climate where those who are dependent on drugs have no way of knowing exactly what is in the drugs that they are consuming.
Furthermore, in fear of being criminalised, drug-users may end up consuming in secluded and often dangerous places. Other very dangerous situations caused by lack of resources include drug consumption in public places such as public parks and streets, leaving children exposed to used needles. The sooner we start reforming Ireland’s policy on drugs the sooner we can work on implementing pill-testing, drug-consumption centres, and other practical and much needed facilities.
People from privileged socio-economic backgrounds are affected much less by the prohibition of drugs than people who are less privileged. Social disadvantage has directly led to many young Irish offenders violating the law, as some come from poverty stricken areas which may be characterised by high levels of drug use and crime. Homeless people who are imprisoned are often charged for crimes linked to their poverty such as theft and drug offences when what is really needed is support and in some cases rehabilitation.
Furthermore there is much less chance of a custodial sentence for white collar crimes (committed by the more privileged members of society) than there is for drug-related offences and crimes stemming from drug prohibition such as criminal damage and theft. People who are convicted of white collar crime are also seen as less of a security problem and not subjected to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
Nevertheless, the disproportionate levels of enforcement for different socioeconomic groups is motivated more by an enforcement regime focused on targeting certain sectors of society rather than being motivated by any significant discrepancy in levels of drug-use. Some troubling statistics from the U.S. show the injustice suffered by African American people due to drug law enforcement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reported in 2011 that African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offences, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offence, and that African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offence (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offence (61.7 months).
SSDP Ireland chapters have been set up in DCU, CIT, NUIG, and AIT as well as UCC. The international organisation was founded in 1998 in the U.S. and comprises of thousands of members at hundreds of campuses in countries all over the world. SSDP Ireland has sent students to conventions on drug policy in Vienna, Colorado and Washington. The United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs took place in Vienna last year, where the general consensus was that countries which were moving away from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs would be indirectly given some control over their own national drug policy. It hopes to send more SSDP Ireland members to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session which will take place in New York City in 2016.
Just over a year ago a member of NUIG SSDP organised a vigil when Merlin Park addiction centre was closed down, highlighting the need for more resources for problematic drug users, and this campaign was very much welcomed by the local community. SSDP in UCC organised the biggest Irish student drug survey this year, as well as hosting speakers from around the world to speak about drug policy reform and their own experiences and observations on policy changes around the world. Last April, SSDP’s first national conference was held in Galway, hosting expert psychologists and researchers, as well as members of Law Enforcement against Prohibition (LEAP), and our very own Luke “Ming” Flanagan. Our second national conference is set to take place in Dublin this year, where we will be inviting more esteemed guest speakers to inspire old and new members of SSDP Ireland.
We recently saw Mr Justice Gerard Hogan allow for possession of some drugs because of a lack of guidance by the Oireachtas on the use of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 s.2(2). Hogan J said that the terms used in the title – “misuse”, “dangerous”, and “harmful” – did not provide “sufficient restriction on the more or less unlimited power of regulation” that the government holds to decide which substances can be declared controlled drugs, and thus be made illegal. The judge’s reference to alcohol and tobacco was a welcome acknowledgement of the dire need for change in the way we think about drugs.
Alcohol is a drug and all drugs have the potential to be dangerous. Not only is the issue of alcohol misuse often joked about in Ireland, but illegal drugs are portrayed as something inherently bad by the media and people who choose to consume illegal drugs are stigmatised and ignored by the public and the authorities. We need to re-think drug-related issues. We must acknowledge that all drugs have the potential to be dangerous and that this in itself is a reason to demand the government take some control away from the people behind the illicit drug trade by looking in to alternative policy routes such as decriminalisation and regulation.
SSDP wants UCC students to think about drug-related issues and drug policy, consider whether change is needed, and use SSDP as a political platform to voice your opinion if you would like to make that change happen.