Editorial: 'Resources must be in place for new drugs initiative'
There has been a persistent argument down the years: drug addicts don't need jail, they are already prisoners of their addiction. Addressing drug abuse through the health system as opposed to through the penal system is a logical follow on. There will be opposing views either way; but one thing not open to dispute is the current system is failing everyone except the crime lords. The dismal evidence of our total inability to handle the problem is seen in our prisons crammed with drug users.
It's plain to see on our streets every day across the country. We have been calling it a "drugs epidemic" for years, but left it to the forces of law and order to deal with the users' obsessive and compulsive relationship with narcotics.
Others will insist drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision. If you break the law then you pay the consequences. Thus the announcement of a 'three-strike' system for possession by the Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan yesterday will be watched keenly.
A similar so-called diversion system operates in the UK. The UN, EU and the Oireachtas Committee on Justice have all called for a public health approach to the drug problem.
This works on the basis users are given a street warning the first time they are caught, but can be fined and arrested if they are caught three times.
The first thought that springs to mind is how will our totally over-burdened health system cope with the extra demands?
Health Minister Simon Harris pointed out himself yesterday how the new health-led approach could draw in 12,000 people a year who come to the attention of gardaí for drug possession for personal use. Mr Harris described the change as offering "a helping hand instead of just a handcuff". It is a nice sound-bite but will the resources be there? As in every government initiative, the test is always whether a budget will be put in place.
Without adequate financing this will be just something that sounds progressive, but will have little impact. But providing it is properly funded it could be a positive step.
There is the potential for rehabilitation and the prospect of a fresh start, without a criminal record. As Jonathan Swift remarked: "Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through." Having drugs will remain an offence, but it would be an "administrative" one where health experts would have a role.
We know treatment and support services are the best way to go, but the presumption they will be in place is something of a leap of faith given the state of the health services.
It is also to be hoped the new laws will free up court and Garda resources.
Gardaí understandably have reservations in that a more liberalised regime may make it harder for them to police the drugs trade.
Ideally, it is the drug lords who make fortunes out of destroying lives and not the "mules" and the addicts who should be spending long periods behind bars.