When it comes to the illegal drug trade, Ireland has a long history of ignoring the root cause of the issue, preferring to throw money and resources at the unfortunate symptoms. It is no surprise then to hear whispers of decriminalisation, a policy that has proved incredibly successful in Portugal since 2001. Grace Catherine Morey tells us why the war on drugs should be replaced with policies of compassion and human rights. As part of our series, Motley is asking how can Ireland learn from our Mediterranean neighbours?
According to the national drug-related death incidents report carried out by the Health Research Board, there were 376 deaths in Ireland as a direct result of poisoning and 410 further non-poisoning deaths amongst drug users in 2017, one year alone. The median age of those who died was just 49 years. This puts Ireland’s drug-related deaths three times above the European average, with Portugal seeing just 38 drug-related deaths in a population of over 10 million. These stats may appear to be mere statistics, but every person who has died by the hand of addiction is an individual who deserves humanity and rights. As a society, Ireland is very quick to make sweeping moral statements about drug users who seek comfort while sleeping rough whereas wine drinkers at the end of a nine to five day are morally upstanding. We cannot say that substance reliance is something that is criminal. Why then, have we failed to follow a human rights agenda in drug policy?
In the 90s, Portugal’s drug use wasn’t particularly high. However, a large percentage of Portuguese addicts were addicted to heroin and the country had the highest rate of HIV infections in Europe. Addiction issues were arising across society as a whole, not just within
marginalised groups. Dr Joao Goulao, the architect of Portugal’s drug policy, decided that a radically different approach was needed. As a result, legislation, stating that possession of drugs for personal use would no longer be dealt with as a criminal offence, was introduced. Similar to Portugal, Ireland is a small European country which has seen the most devastating effects of the heroin epidemic. There is no reason then, to assume that similar results could not be achieved here.
Of course, there are many arguments against this radical policy, with the valid arguments being made that decriminalisation may lead people to think that substance abuse is somehow acceptable and that it may be more difficult to catch dealers if users cannot be threatened with jail-time to catch those further up the chain. Data from Portugal has highlighted that decriminalisation is very much a class issue. In other words, the use of recreational marijuana may spike in the general population, but hundreds of heroin addicts will be spared from overdose and death. The bottom line is, this is a policy which can (and has succeeded) to save lives, the value of which cannot be underestimated. Far from suggesting that substance abuse is ok, this policy was designed to break the cycle of addiction and death that destroys countless lives and drains money and resources from services that desperately need it. In Ireland, 75% of drug-related cases are for possession for personal use. Decriminalisation could dramatically free up a large amount of space in the system to deal with more serious offences.
The reality is, a lot of people do not become dependent on illegal drug use if they feel supported by their society, have meaningful social interactions, access to quality education, adequate mental health and addiction facilities, job satisfaction and affordable housing.
Treating those who are suffering by charging them as criminals rather than directing resources towards helping them break the cycle of drug dependency only serves to throw these directly people back into such cycles of crime and addiction once they are discharged from the system. Rather than pumping taxpayers’ money into treating addicts as criminals, the government needs to step up and direct these valuable resources into advocating for sensible drug policy and improving addiction services in our country.