Ireland’s Drugs Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has called for decriminalising possession of small amounts of drugs.
By Bernard Purcell
He made the call on Monday in a speech at the London School of Economics (LSE) in which he said new thinking is urgently needed to deal with Ireland’s drugs problem.
The minister, who is strongly in favour of injection centres to keep needle abuse off Dublin’s streets, said he and fellow TDs had been impressed by Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drug abuse and at how cities like Sydney had responded to drug addiction. Mr. O’Riordan, a former girls’ school principal, was one of the driving forces behind Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum earlier this year.
“From my work as a teacher and principal in Dublin’s North Inner City for many years, I am acutely aware of the devastating consequences of drug abuse for those using drugs, their families and the wider community as a whole.
Drug addiction affects all demographics; rich and poor as well as young and old,” he said. “There needs to be a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse, if we are to break this cycle and make a serious attempt to tackle drug and alcohol addiction,” he declared in London.
“The drug problem in Ireland is no longer an exclusively heroin problem. Cannabis use has become more prevalent and is normalised in some communities,” said the Irish Minister.
He said Ireland’s aging methadone users have spent years on opiate substitution treatment and have complex needs and poor physical health. “In a population of 4.6m, there are 10,000 people currently in methadone treatment. And 1 in 3 has been in treatment for more than 10 years and one in 5 is aged over 45.
“While the number of new entrants to methadone treatment is decreasing, the number of patients outside Dublin continues to grow as demand for drugs services across Ireland is increasing,” he said.
“It is imperative that we approach our drug problem in a more compassionate and sensitive way. One of the key things that I aim to achieve during my remaining time in office is the introduction of a medically supervised injecting centre for intra–venous drug users.
He said that in August, a ‘think tank’ of front line agencies and health service workers agreed that drugs should be decriminalised across the board.“I am in favour of a decriminalisation model, but it must be one that suits the Irish context and be evidence based.
“This kind of approach will only work if it is accompanied by timely treatment and harm reduction services, backed up by wrap-around supports which foster recovery – such as housing, health and social care.
“Above all, the model must be person-centred and involve an integrated approach to treatment and rehabilitation based on a continuum of care with clearly defined referral pathways.”He said Portugal was a good example for Ireland: it decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use in 2001 – deciding to treat possession and use of small quantities as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. As a result of tackling drug use as a social health issue rather than a policing one drug deaths from overdoses in Portugal three per million citizens compared to Ireland’s 70 per million. “Ireland is entering a new and exciting phase, as we embark on developing a new drugs strategy to meet the challenges ahead.
An examination of the approach to drugs policy and practice in other jurisdictions will help to identify any additional evidence-based approaches which might be considered in an Irish context.”At the time of going to press Ireland’s Oireachtas Justice Committee is this week expected to make similar recommendations of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs.