No ‘green light’ for drugs themselves, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin tells Adam Shaw, but an alternative to failed policy must be tried
Ireland’s “drugs minister” this week insisted his plans – if his party is back in government next year – to liberalise drugs laws will not be the same as a “free for all” or declaring them legal.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s speech at the London School of Economics (LSE) last month called for a “radical cultural shift” In Ireland’s drug laws because they are failing so badly.
This was inevitably reported, in plain English, as Ireland planning to decriminalise, or even legalise, drugs – a broad-brush description which Mr Ó Ríordáin says is not accurate.
“I am concerned about the conceptions people have,” he told the Irish World. “We have to use very fine-tuned terminology so people are clear about what we are talking about.
“We are not decriminalising drugs, we are decriminalising the individual – of course we are maintaining the illegality of substances, but addicts should not be criminalised.”
The minister affirmed that the new system would not create gaps for drug availability and those who continued to sell and traffic substances would be targeted.
“If someone is profiting or benefiting from drug abuse they will be punished.”
During his LSE lecture, Mr Ó Ríordáin highlighted the model used in Portugal as ideal when it comes to tackling drug addiction.
An Oireachtas report, compiled by an all-party committee and published on 5 November, backed up this idea where all but one of the 87 submissions to the committee from the public were in favour of such a system.
Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use in 2001. People found with up to ten days supply of drugs are now sent before a dissuasion committee rather than a judge to discuss why they are using the substances.
They are typically offered support and referred to a medical professional rather than suffering a criminal record and court sanctions. This was what was particularly attractive to Mr Ó Ríordáin.
“We are talking about helping individuals; the main point is that we want to deal with people who are very vulnerable. “With this system you are more likely to receive help,” he said.
Four members of the Oireachtas Justice Committee travelled to Lisbon in June this year to witness first-hand the strategies implemented by the country’s legal authorities in tackling drug abuse.
A report after the visit noted that by moving substance possession from a criminal issue to a health issue, authorities could make better use of their time and resources to tackle major drug dealers and traffickers.
Recent figures from Portugal show that there are three drug overdose deaths per million citizens whereas in Ireland, statistics from 2012 show 70 overdose deaths per million of the population.
But it is not just Portugal that Ireland is looking towards for inspiration as Mr Ó Ríordáin admitted they were monitoring various European systems as well as a model used in Sydney. The drugs minister was particularly concerned about the impact of witnessing drug abuse first hand as well as the implications of needle sharing.
“People are liable to contract diseases, the current practice is unreliable,” he said. “It can be disturbing for people walking by to see open drug taking but, at the moment, that is the reality.”
In the early 1990s, pictures of ‘Needle Park’ in Zürich highlighted Switzerland’s open drug scene and convinced authorities to introduce medically supervised injection centres. Around 1,500 Swiss receive treatment for heroin addiction at such centres and professionals say the emphasis on the medicalisation of addiction has made the drug less attractive to young people.
According to a comparative report by the UK government, heroin assisted treatment in Switzerland can be effective in reducing illicit drug use and for improving retention in treatment among people deeply entrenched in opiate dependency. And Mr Ó Ríordáin says similar centres could be opened in Ireland as early as the end of next year.
He said: “It won’t happen overnight and there are various obstacles for us to overcome. “But we could be looking at setting- up centres within the next 12 to 18 months.”
As in Portugal, the change in policy also intends to shift the focus from small-scale drug offenders to large distributors and cultivators. This concept was considered particularly attractive in the Oireachtas report, which wants the new model to provide gardaí with more resources to tackle high-profile traffickers.
Last month Ireland’s Garda Representative Association, which represents 11,500 police officers, said they would welcome decriminalisation. The Irish police have predominately dealt with minor drug offences – two-thirds of drug related prosecutions have consistently been for possession for personal use – something the plans hope to change.
Mr Ó Ríordáin is satisfied with the overall reaction to his proposals.
“I’m particularly pleased with the backing from the Oireachtas justice committee, as it was an all-party decision,” he said. “It is hopefully something that will gain pace in the future and it’s something that we’re genuinely progressing towards.”
He added: “I’m glad that it has stimulated a debate and I’m happy that people view it as a major step in the right direction.”
He is travelling around Ireland talking with university students to gauge their reaction to the plans and has received a positive response.
“I’m asking young people what they think about the issue and most of them believe it has a lot of merit.
“The majority of people are looking at it from a humanitarian viewpoint – it’s actually been very hard to find people who are not in favour of the proposals,” he said.