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We cannot decriminalise drugs without having a proper debate first


Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: The minister is looking calls to decriminalise drugs based on the Portuguese experience. But what has happened in Portugal is open to debate. It seems to have had good and bad effects

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: The minister is looking calls to decriminalise drugs based on the Portuguese experience. But what has happened in Portugal is open to debate. It seems to have had good and bad effects

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: The minister is looking calls to decriminalise drugs based on the Portuguese experience. But what has happened in Portugal is open to debate. It seems to have had good and bad effects

Is it true that 82pc of Irish third-level students have tried illegal drugs? That's a massive figure. It comes from a study called the National Student Drug Survey.

This online survey received valid responses from 2,700 students, a big number. But were these students representative of the entire population of students, or were those students most likely to use drugs also the ones most likely to take part in the survey thereby distorting the result? That's an important question.

One reason it's important is because Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the minister with responsibility for our drugs policy, is using the figure to argue that criminalising drug use "is not deterring drug use in Ireland".

He suggests that what it might be doing instead is "stigmatising people and preventing people from getting help".

So you see why it's important to find out whether that 82pc figure is accurate? It's important because a government minister is using it as part of a campaign to win backing for a change of approach to drugs that are currently illegal.

The campaign to liberalise our drugs policy is a perfect emblem of the way we conduct many public 'debates' in Ireland. We get one point of view, bombard the public with it and then change policy in the predetermined direction.

It would be a bit like conducting a trial and allowing the jury to hear only the case for the prosecution before deciding whether the accused is guilty or not.

What's on trial in this case is our national drug policy. It is accused of causing more harm than good by criminalising drug users.

We are told to look to countries that have followed a different approach, such as Portugal, which has gone down the road of wholesale decriminalisation and has, we are assured, suffered no ill effects. On the contrary, heroin related deaths have gone down. However, deaths from other drugs appear to have gone up, a hugely important caveat and one we haven't heard very much about.

One organisation that has sounded a note of caution in this debate and has expressed concern about the way the debate is being conducted is the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA).

It has made a submission on the matter to the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

It says: "We are very concerned that much of the public discussion on this topic in Ireland has been profoundly unbalanced, with positive experiences of other countries being greatly exaggerated and adverse consequences being ignored."

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That should throw up a big red flag immediately and underscores yet again how we conduct 'debate' in this country. We simply cannot press ahead with a major change to our drugs policy without properly hearing both sides of the argument.

Given the size of this country, given the total capture of the social sciences here by the ideological left, and given the fact that almost every NGO working in the area is of the same ideological bent, that may mean going overseas to find experts with a different point of view.

The IHCA submission goes on: "While there appears to be an international desire among enthusiasts of liberalisation of drugs policy to view the decriminalisation approach adopted by Portugal as an unqualified success, there are very divergent views on its impact."

It points out that cannabis use among Portuguese teenagers has doubled since decriminalisation in 1995, while it has halved here where it remains criminalised.

Has the Portuguese rate increased because of decriminalisation? Not necessarily. Has our rate halved because of continued criminalisation? Not necessarily. Independent factors could be at work and this is crucial in assessing what has happened, and why, in Portugal following decriminalisation.

Those who say the increase in cannabis use among Portuguese teenagers has nothing to do with decriminalisation cannot then turn around and state with full confidence and with a straight face that a decline in heroin related deaths is definitely caused by a more liberal, more permissive drugs policy.

This is why we need a genuine debate on the issue, not a debate in which only one voice is properly heard, the voice favouring a liberalised approach. That isn't a debate at all. That is a farce, and deeply intellectually dishonest.

If the Oireachtas Health Committee really wants to look at this issue from all sides, then perhaps it could invite before it representatives from European Cities Against Drugs (ECAD)?

The IHCA submission points out that the reduction in the number of opiate-related deaths in Portugal may not be related to decriminalisation as much as to a big increase in access to drug treatment programmes.

Commenting on the ICHA submission, the Chairman of the Oireachtas Justice Committee, David Stanton, told The Sunday Times, "Portugal has successfully reduced what were serious levels of drug misuse 15 years ago and this is due in large part to the fact that the treatment of drug addiction is regarded as a health issue not just a criminal justice issue".

That may or may not be true but in no way does it properly address the question of whether or not decriminalisation has been the main factor driving down the number of heroin related deaths.

Speaking personally, I'm not necessarily opposed to decriminalising cannabis possession or permitting heroin addicts to shoot themselves up in supervised injecting rooms if a sufficiently strong case can be made for doing so.

As a first step, perhaps we could replace criminalising cannabis possession with a system of fines. There should be some sanction to discourage use.

However, we should go no further than this until we have massively increased drug treatment programmes and then evaluated the success of that.

At present there are a miserable 200 residential beds in Ireland for addicts seeking to come off drugs compared with more than 20,000 heroin users. That is one bed for every 100 heroin addicts.

A State, a society that is serious about tackling heroin addiction, would not tolerate this.

So by all means let's set out to reduce the harm addicts do to themselves but let's try to do that by reducing the number of addicts before we even contemplate decriminalising hard drugs. In the meantime, let's have a proper and balanced debate about the topic instead of the "profoundly unbalanced" discussion currently taking place.