Monday 26 September 2016

TDs who brag about past drug use need to back law reform

Collette Browne

Published 28/04/2015 | 02:30

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is the latest Irish politician to admit using drugs but the only one who didn't break the law to do so. Speaking after his new role of Minister of State with responsibility for Drug Strategy was added to his portfolio, he said he dabbled with drugs once while a student.

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"I didn't break the law. I was a student, I was in Amsterdam, it was the weekend. I am not a smoker. I do what most students do," he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin joins a number of other high-profile politicians who have also conceded to using drugs, namely cannabis. Back in 2007, then Finance Minister Brian Cowen was dubbed "Biffo Spliffo" after he admitted using the drug during his student days.

"Anyone who went to the UCD bar in the 70s that didn't get a whiff of marijuana would be telling you a lie. There were a couple of occasions when it was passed around and unlike President Clinton, I did inhale," he said.

That same year, former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn admitted he too had "tasted the drug" and had taken a "puff of it" but "never did anything verbally", whatever that means. Meanwhile, in 2011, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said he "did a bit in my college years but not since I've held elected office".

It's easy for these politicians to recall, with fondness, their heady student days when cannabis was a staple at every college party, because they never suffered the legal consequences of their actions - they were never caught. Despite this, they seem unable to see the glaring contradiction in reminiscing about their halcyon joint-smoking student days while simultaneously supporting a draconian policy of criminalising others for behaviour they themselves engaged in.

Mr Varadkar's drug use, for example, never threatened his medical career, unlike a young doctor who appeared before the district court last year after he was caught with a small amount of cannabis in Dublin. His employer, a city hospital, found out about the prosecution after receiving an anonymous email and he was suspended pending the verdict of the case. Ultimately, the judge recognised the arrest was an aberration and ordered him to pay €10,000 to charity to avoid a criminal conviction, which would have destroyed his career before it had ever really begun.

Tens of thousands of others have suffered similar fates, hauled before courts after being found with small amounts of cannabis, but most don't have a good lawyer who can plead their case and get them out of a conviction - meaning it's predominantly people from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer the most punitive consequences.

In 2013, more than 14,000 people appeared before district courts around the country charged with drug offences. Most of these will have been young men who have been caught with a small amount and find themselves, many for the first time, in an unfamiliar court setting, unsure of what to do.

Because most of those on petty drug charges are not in danger of a custodial sentence, there is no automatic entitlement to legal aid. So, many of them, when called by the judge, simply plead guilty without attempting to convince the court that they should be offered the benefit of a second chance by way of the probation act.

The fines imposed may not be huge, but the consequences are. Once the conviction is recorded their lives are permanently blighted - a multitude of job and travel opportunities forever extinguished. But many of the defendants are too young and naïve to realise just how serious their conviction really is until it's too late to appeal to the circuit court.

Which is why Mr Ó Ríordáin's announcement that he will look into decriminalisation of the drug should be welcomed - unlike his hypocritical colleagues, he recognises the glaring inequity in criminalising young people for something he himself has done, albeit abroad, where it was legal.

Decriminalisation is not the same as legalising drugs. It doesn't mean the State encourages cannabis use or somehow endorses it. It doesn't mean the State has decided it is safe to smoke cannabis or that there are no potential, harmful side-effects. The drug would still be illegal to sell, but possession of small amounts for personal use would no longer be a criminal offence.

Ultimately, it's simply an admission that courts and prison are not appropriate places for drug users, who benefit far more from the intervention of the health services. It would also mean gardai would have much more time and resources to go after violent criminal gangs - the people who routinely shoot each other over turf wars.

Unlike the punitive policy we have pursued in this country for years -which has yielded no discernible, long-term results - it's also a policy that has been proven to work.

Portugal decriminalised drugs, including cannabis, in 2000 and within just 10 years the number of addicts considered problematic - those who repeatedly used hard drugs and used drugs intravenously - had decreased by half. No longer forced to spend millions dragging recreational drug users through the criminal justice system, Portugal was able to direct money where it's really needed - treatment facilities.

Advocating the decriminalisation of drugs is often portrayed as somehow radical or dangerous when, in fact, it's simply about facing reality - the current policy is broken and Portugal has proven there is a better way.

If TDs who have bragged about using cannabis in the past have any credibility, they will support this policy as publicly as they proclaimed their drug use.

Irish Independent

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