Drug decriminalisation could see fall in overdose related deaths

The Minister in charge of the National Drugs Strategy, Aodhán Ó Riordáin TD, announced plans earlier this month which could see the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use being decriminalised.

The Labour TD outlined a plan which will see the possession of small quantities of drugs like cannabis, heroin and cocaine being decriminalised in the near future.

This announcement was made during a speech to the London School of Economics, during which the TD also said he hoped that medically supervised injection centres will be introduced as early as next year for the country’s heroin users.

This paradigm shift will almost certainly reduce drug related crime in the country and should free up resources which will allow the Garda National Drugs Unit to pursue darker underworld elements, primarily those who currently import dangerous illegal drugs into Ireland.

Ireland, however, will not be the first country to decriminalise the use of some drugs for personal use. Portugal first decriminalised the possession of personal amounts of drugs in July 2001, while the Czech Republic had previously decriminalised the possession of quantities of drugs that were obviously for personal use in January 1999. A policy of non-enforcement has allowed effectively illegal cannabis “coffee shops” to flourish in the Netherlands, fueling their tourism trade.

Closer to home, just eight people were cited for misdemeanor drug possession in the United Kingdom in 2005. Conversely, 5,461 people found themselves in the same situation in Portugal in the same year.

This stark difference shows that, in the United Kingdom, people were obviously being convicted for the same offences that will be reclassified as misdemeanors in Ireland soon.

In 2009, speaking on Portugal’s new laws, Glenn Greenwald, of American libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, said, “Now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centres and they’re learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely.” A similar scenario is surely the envy of the countless Irish families who feel the pain which results from drug misuse.

A study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction this year found that there are about 60 deaths caused by drug overdose per million people in Ireland per year. In Portugal and the Czech Republic, they found that there were no more than 5 deaths caused by drug overdoses per million people per year.

The difference in these figures is stark but, while they may paint a picture of a nation which is regressive where drug policy is concerned, the new direction which Minister Ó Riordáin is intent on taking the country in could see these eye-opening death numbers rapidly reduced.

PJ Stone, of the Garda Representatives Association, said of Minister Ó Riordáin’s plans, “I think that anything that can deal with the curse of drugs and some innovating thinking on this is to be welcomed.”

Many Irish people will be pleased at the thought of dangerous drug supplying gangs being taken out of business or, at the very least, having their business activities greatly restricted.

Minister Ó Riordáin said of the proposed new legislation, “This will be a wider discussion under the next government but once people get their head around the argument, about what decriminalisation actually means, that policy won’t be about the drug but about the individual.

“Then regardless of the drug, the individual needs an intervention and society will be saying, ‘the substance is illegal, but you are not a criminal for taking it’.”


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