Is Decriminalization of All Drugs on Ireland’s Horizon?

When most people think of Ireland, they imagine the picturesque emerald landscapes, historic castles blanketed in fog, and rowdy pubs overflowing with Guinness. But beneath this peaceful facade, the Irish population is battling a war that very few triumph — the war on drugs.

Exasperated from coming up short in this forlorn battle against addiction, the people of Ireland are ready to fight back. According to a new survey, 49% of the Irish population is in favor of decriminalizing the personal use of all drugs.

“Ireland currently has one of the highest drug-related death rates in Europe,” explains Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, the national center of expertise on drug use and law in the UK.

Eastwood’s goal is for Ireland to transition from a criminal approach to one of rehabilitation. Eastwood explains, “punishing people who use drugs as criminals is a tremendous waste of state resources and a penalty that is wholly disproportionate to the act.

On top of the wasted resources, it has been proven that criminal punishment for drug use simply does not work. Eastwood’s research shows that “punitive approaches lead to poor education around safer drug use and reinforce societal stigma, which can deter the people who need help from accessing health, harm reduction or treatment services.”

ireland-drug-offensesIf Ireland decriminalized drugs, the exorbitant amount of criminal convictions against drug offenders would be replaced with warnings, fines, drug awareness classes, and appropriate treatment. The chart to the right shows the increasing trend of drug offense convictions. As you can see, most arrests are for low-level possession — in 2008, personal-use possession offenses accounted for almost 75% of the 14,374 drug offenses in Ireland. “The sharp upward trend in total drug offenses since 2003 is largely accounted for by the increase in the simple possession offenses.” Between 2005 and 2009, the number of drug convictions doubled while theft and burglary remained static.

It’s important to remember, decriminalization isn’t legalization. Ireland would not be regulating, manufacturing, or importing drugs. This potential shift to decriminalization would only lessen the harsh criminal punishment drug offenders currently face.

Last year, the Minister of Drugs, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, expressed his support for Ireland’s move towards decriminalization. “Addiction is not a choice, it’s a healthcare issue. This is why I believe it is imperative that we approach our drug problem in a more compassionate and sensitive way.”

Ríordáin announced during a speech at the London School of Economics that he plans to open injection centers for drug users in Dublin in 2016. This may seem like an intense move to some, but Ríordáin argues that casual drug injection in the streets of Dublin poses a greater threat to the general public and the lives of users. There are currently over 100 supervised injection facilities in 66 cities across the globe. Research has shown that these safe injection centers reduce HIV risks, prevent overdose fatalities, reduce discarded needles on the street, and increases interest in entering drug treatment. While injection centers have not been established in Ireland quite yet, Ríordáin made it a point to state there is strong government support for drug decriminalization and they are working to make decriminalization a reality.

countries-that-decriminalized-drugsAnd for those of you questioning Ireland’s sanity, decriminalization isn’t an entirely new concept. Countries all over the world have decriminalized drugs and experienced many social, economic, and health benefits.

Take Portugal for example, who decriminalized all drug use in 2001 and has seen tremendous improvements. For the last 15 years, drug use among adults and youth have dropped. Portugal’s HIV rates have decreased staggeringly in the same time period and their overdose rate is lower than any other country in the European Union.  

As stated previously, almost half of the country supports decriminalizing drugs, which speaks volumes. The poll shows overwhelming support from men (56 percent) and young people between the ages of 18 and 34 (58 percent).  

This move towards decriminalization would not only free Irish citizens from the shackles of the drug war, but it would allow law enforcement to focus on more serious offenses rather than wasting time booking low-level drug users.

What are your thoughts concerning nationwide decriminalization? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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