Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Treating people who use drugs as criminals increases risks' - community workers push to decriminalise drug use

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Laura Lynott

Laura Lynott

Community workers are trying to convince the State that decriminalisation is the only way forward, as fears mount an expert working group may recommend continued criminalisation.

The community workers, who have been involved in the National Drugs Strategy, said the Working Group on Alternative Approaches to Criminalisation for Possession, was “likely to recommend Ireland continues to respond to people who use drugs, through the criminal justice system.”

But those supporting a more holistic approach, said recent evidence has highlighted decriminalisation is working.

And they say the promotion of criminalisation would be a step backwards for Ireland.

The groups point to the drug-related death rate in Portugal, currently at 4 per million compared to 70 per million in Ireland.

Since Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, the country has witnessed huge decreases in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

Director of one of the community networks, CityWide’s Anna Quigley, said decriminalisation is recognised in the recent statement on behalf of all United Nations’ agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Health Organisation.

“Evidence shows that decriminalisation does not lead to an overall increase in drug use and it does not send out a message that drugs are harmless,” Ms Quigley added.

“In Ireland 72pc of all drug crime incidents recorded in 2017 were for possession for personal use.

“And yet there is no evidence to support the effectiveness of this use of police, legal and court resources in reducing drug use and its harms.”

She said that is “crucial” that this “opportunity to change our drug laws so that we stop criminalising people who use drugs not be missed.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, the UK's national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, said while diversion programmes recognise that providing access to health and support services is the most appropriate response, such schemes continue to operate in the context of the criminal law, and as such, people who use illicit drugs are still perceived as criminals.

“It does not make sense to say that, yes, we know treatment and support services are the best way to go, but we will define people as criminals first and foremost,” she said.

“The evidence shows that treating people who use drugs as criminals increases the health and social risks associated with drug use and creates barriers to people seeking support or treatment, and a police diversion scheme will do little to mitigate these risks and barriers.”

Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, said: “As a country, we have a real opportunity to say unequivocally that drug use is a health issue, that people who use drugs will not be criminalised just because of their personal use, and that we will work to reduce drug-related harm without using the crude tool of the criminal law to punish people for no good reason.”

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