Orla Leahy writes for Motley as part of a series on why those who are drug addicts should be treated as patients, not criminals. How can Ireland learn from our Mediterranean neighbours?

Reading David Sheff’s novel, Beautiful Boy, opened my eyes to the reality of drug addiction. As a society, many of us have ill-conceived notions, much unconscious bias. We tend to believe that addiction is a path chosen, that an addict’s background can be blamed, and that criminalisation is the only treatment for drug abuse. Through Sheff’s exploration of his son’s drug addiction, I have learned that addiction is a disease, not a choice, that anyone can become an addict, and that criminalisation doesn’t always resolve addiction, it often exacerbates it.

Sheff paints a horrifying picture of the way addiction is dealt with globally. Prejudice and stigma cloud our perceptions and hinder the development of research into treatment opportunities. It is difficult to source worthwhile rehabilitation programmes that cater for individual addict’s needs and those deemed suitable are egregiously priced. Education systems fail to adequately inform us of the true nature of addiction, leaving us incompetent to recognise early signs of the disease, to intervene or to stop the disease’s development and growth in individuals.

In 2001, Portugal launched their drug decriminalisation programme. The Drug Policy Alliance group has illustrated the astounding results, from a substantial increase in voluntary entry to rehabilitation programmes, to significant decreases in overdoses and infections like HIV. (52% of new HIV infections were caused by drug use in 2001 compared to 6% in 2015).

Prior to the programme, only one per cent of drug-related arrests were for simple possession for personal use. Portugal never saw the criminalisation that today’s USA (85% of drug-related arrests) and Ireland (73% of drug-related offences) sees for mere possession of drugs for personal use, yet Portugal has reaped long-term rewards for their programme. This begs the question, what level of reward would the USA and Ireland experience with the implementation of a similar programme?

It is most concerning that the current criminalisation of drug possession for personal use disproportionally affects society. Citizens from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds and groups face greater criminal charges, with those of ethnic or racial minorities three times more likely to be arrested for a drug-related offence in the USA. Similarly in Ireland, while there is no breakdown of those arrested into socio-economic groupings, 66% of those in treatment for opiate usage of heroin were unemployed and 10% were homeless in 2016.

Portugal’s programme centres around strategies targeted at reducing harm, primarily education on the effects of addiction and the treatments available to treat addiction.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has conducted research into the negative effects of criminalisation for personal use possession in Ireland on human rights. Most prevalently, the right to health and the right to privacy are hindered. The Universal Declaration of Human


Rights has been in existence for 72 years. It is deeply saddening to think that over seven decades later, such rights are not being realised for some of society’s most vulnerable, the victims of a disease as harmful as addiction.

Sheff drew my attention to former US President Nixon’s declaration of two wars in 1971, one on cancer and the other on addiction. Whilst cancer has become more treatable, destigmatised and subject to a rapidly increasing survival rate, drug addiction has gone seemingly unwatched. It is time for drug addiction to be treated as the war Nixon envisioned. From my overview of our current perception of drugs, such a “war” must begin with a comprehensive education programme, founded on the principal’s that Portugal’s programme has been. Education has the power to destigmatise addiction, to initiate the introduction of decriminalising simple possession for personal use and most importantly, to save lives.