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The Case for Irish Drug Policy Reform

category national | public consultation / irish social forum | other press author Tuesday August 30, 2011 02:16author by Ruaidhrí O' Conghaile Report this post to the editors

In the current economic climate, the issue of drug policy is all too easily swept under the carpet by our politicians, who instead prefer to focus on budgetary cuts as a means of addressing our massive fiscal deficit. What our politicians apparently fail to recognize however, is the economic idiocy of continuing to pour hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers money into a failed drug policy.


It is now fifty years since the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years since American President Richard Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs.

It is also 40 years since Ireland’s first major policy document in the area of Drug misuse, the 1971 Report of the Working Party on Drug Abuse, and despite vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs, the evidence now shows that we have completely failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.

Quite simply, we have tried the same policy for 40 years and it is not working, it is glaringly obvious that fundamental reforms in both national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

In the current economic climate, the issue of drug policy is all too easily swept under the carpet by our politicians, who instead prefer to focus on budgetary cuts as a means of addressing our massive fiscal deficit. What our politicians apparently fail to recognize however, is the economic idiocy of continuing to pour hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers money into failed drug policy.

Wasteful government expenditure on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

Without a doubt, the current bull headed anti-drug crusade will go down as among the greatest follies of modern times.

The time has come for Ireland to radically reassess our approach to drugs. The war on drugs is based on a set of ideas which have never been adequately explored or reviewed, principally the notion that problems arising from drug use can be tackled by policy measures which are aimed at controlling the supply of illicit drugs. All the data suggests that in fact the opposite is true, that policies of prohibition exacerbate social problems such as organized crime, sex trafficking, and drug related infections, while doing nothing to reduce drug related deaths and addiction rates.

Throughout the world, a punitive regime of prohibition has turned streets into battlefields resulting in uncontrollable overcrowding in our prisons, all the while a multi-billion euro untaxed black economy lines the pockets of major organized criminal enterprises. Producing and distributing illegal drugs is a highly organized business, whose effects are felt throughout all levels of society.

Studies have consistently shown that policies of prohibition and criminalization, as we have in Ireland, create a situation where the most substantial barrier to offering treatment to the addict population is the addicts’ fear of arrest, therefore hindering our ability to treat those who are in greatest need of treatment.

Our current approach to drugs has done nothing to reduce the availability of drugs, the rates of addiction, drug related deaths or drug related infections. For decades astronomical sums of Irish taxpayers money has been poured into a policy which can no longer reasonably be accepted as being in any way sensible. The fact is, in Ireland, drugs today are more available than they have ever been, are worse quality than they have ever been, and as a result are responsible for more deaths than at any other time in our history.

In defense of prohibition, it has been suggested that no one has ever believed illegal drug use could be entirely eliminated, however there was a defensible view that prohibition could prevent more harm than it caused. Such a defense can no longer be reasonably accepted, as innumerable international studies have conclusively shown that the costs of drug prohibition now far outweigh any possible benefits the policy may bring.

It is time for a radical shift in policy.


According to a massive 2009 study by the European Commission, the 'war on drugs' has not reduced the production, trafficking, availability or use of drugs. The research project said the prices of drugs have fallen significantly in western Europe, by as much as 10%-30%, despite massive efforts and investment in law enforcement.

Similarly sobering conclusions were reached by the Global Illicit Drug Markets Report 1998 to 2007, which found that "there is 'no evidence' that the global drug problem has reduced", that "there is a 'lack of evidence' that controls (crop eradication, seizures and arrests) can reduce total global production or trafficking", and that "little is spent on prevention and existing programmes have little effect".

Critical studies of drug policies in other countries have generally concluded that drugs have been irrationally demonized, that is they have been regarded in an exaggerated way as corruptors of otherwise well-functioning societies, and that our current policy of prohibition fails to recognize that wider social and situational needs such as poverty, housing, health, education and employment prospects are as fundamental to reducing drug use as addressing supply.

A recent report released in June of this year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy also argues that the decades-old "global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world". The Commission includes former heads of state of several Latin American countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, Marion Caspers-Merk, as well as several high profile social rights activists and business moguls like Richard Branson.

The report outlines the folly of continuing criminalization and prohibition policies, and makes several key recommendations to Governments. The report recommends that Governments:

* "End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others"

* "Explore models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens"

* "Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures that have proven effective in reducing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections as well as fatal overdoses"

* "Respect the human rights of people who use drugs. Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination"

* "Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation"

For reasons known only to themselves, the Irish Government have chosen to ignore the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drugs, discounting the vast experience and expertise of those behind the report. Instead the Irish Government seem intent to continue ploughing Irish taxpayers money into a policy which by all measures, has not and can not work.


The first discussion of drug problems in an official Irish policy document is almost certainly that which is contained in the 1966 Report by the 'Commission of Inquiry on Mental Illness'. The overall conclusion of the commission, was that Ireland had as yet avoided such problems, although a cautionary note was sounded:

‘the Commission considers that drug addiction could reach serious proportions in this country unless a constant effort is maintained to prevent the abuse of habit-forming drugs’

The commission accepted however that the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts was a legitimate function of the mental health services, although it favored the creation of a centralized, residential treatment unit rather than advocating that drug problems should be dealt with by generic, community mental health services.

Two years later, following the establishment of a special Drug Squad in the Garda Siochana and considerable media interest in drug problems in Dublin, the Minister for Health, Sean Flanagan, appointed a Working Party on Drug Abuse.

The Report of the Working Party on Drug Abuse was completed and made public in 1971.

It is interesting to note that in the Minister’s prefatory comments, was included the opinion that ‘persons who have become dependent on drugs … should be regarded as sick people in need of medical care to be treated with sympathy and understanding’.

It recommended, among other things, that statutory controls to be contained in comprehensive, new, anti-drug legislation and should not unduly infringe on individual civil liberties; that there should be a system of scaled penalties for varying types of drug offence; and that the courts should have the power to commit convicted drug abusers to a treatment facility rather than to a conventional prison.

The working party recommended that the whole question of drug education should be considered by a specialist committee and this, in turn, led to the establishment in 1974 of the Health Education Bureau.

Despite these early rational health oriented approaches to drug policy, we have in Ireland increasingly moved towards greater degrees of criminalization, reflecting a preoccupation with law and order, rather than care for the health and well-being of drug users.

The other major development of the 1970s in this area was the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, which was not put into effect until 1979.

1983 saw the establishment of the Special governmental Task Force on Drug Abuse, a committee consisting of six ministers of state under the chairmanship of Fergus O’Brien, Minister of State at the Department of Health. The most obvious result of their task force was that the existing legislation was amended by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1984, which introduced higher fines and harsher sentence for drug offences, this included a symbolic ‘life’ sentence for 'drug pushing'.

In addition to the increased fines and jail sentences mentioned above, the new legislation dropped the requirement that justice should defer sentencing convicted drug offenders pending the completion of medical and social reports. This essentially amounted to the abandonment of drug addicts, "sick people in need of medical care", to the criminal justice system.

More recently, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) was established in July 2000 to conduct research on drug misuse and to advise the Government on policy development in the area. The NACD operates under the auspices of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. While we should commend renewed attempts by the NACD to emphasize the need for improved access to treatment, we should recognize that the NACD's continued support for prohibition and criminalization effectively negates any progress they may make. Ultimately, we must concede that despite being in existence for over a decade, the NACD has failed in all respects to make any significant impact on the drug situation in Ireland.

At present, the Government’s policy framework on drugs is the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016, an interim plan which fully supports the continued policy of prohibition and criminalization, despite innumerable international studies which identify the explicit harms caused by such policy.

The Irish electorate are now faced with a decision, do we continue to pump hundreds of millions of Euros into a policy which has conclusively been shown to be failed, or do follow the example of countries such as Portugal who have successfully reduced drug addiction and death rates through policies of decriminalization and a health oriented approach?


“Decriminalization” comprises removal of a conduct or activity from the sphere of criminal law. Prohibition remains the rule, but sanctions for use (and its preparatory acts) no longer fall within the framework of the criminal law.

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” although not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

Portugal remains the only EU member state with a law explicitly declaring drugs to be “decriminalized”, Portugal therefore provides a working model of drug decriminalization on which the Irish Government can base future policy.

Significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by pre-enactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” — has occurred

Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes

Drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically.

Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization. As evidenced in Portugal, when the fear of being criminalized and arrested is addressed through decriminalization, the number of addicts who will seek treatment greatly increases.

The data shows that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.


Portugal provides an excellent example to it's EU neighbors on the benefits of decriminalization, but does simple 'decriminalization' go far enough?

Decriminalization clearly leads to a reduction in drug related harms, but there is a down side. Simply decriminalizing leaves production, quality control, distribution and massive profits in the hands of an organized criminal underworld, and out of the taxable economy.

Through a system of decriminalization, coupled with the legalization, taxation and regulation of certain 'soft' drugs, such as Cannabis, which has been shown to be considerably less damaging to an individuals health than tobacco or alcohol, the government could generate hundreds of millions of euro to fund drug awareness and drug rehabilitation programs.

Estimates suggest a policy of regulation and taxation would raise more than enough to cover the costs of education and rehabilitation strategies.

Full-scale legalization, with the state intervening chiefly to regulate quality and provide education on the risks of drug use and care for those who have problems with the drugs they use, should now shape the agenda of drug law reform.


Figures from the Office of Tobacco control show that overall tobacco smoking prevalence has drastically declined in Ireland over the last decade. This massive reduction was brought about not by criminalizing and incarcerating tobacco smokers, but rather this was achieved by making good health information available to responsible adults, who can then make the responsible and informed decision not to smoke tobacco. All of the evidence available suggests that similar strides can be made in relation to illicit drugs, if we approach these in the manner in which we approach tobacco.

An educational health orientated approach, together with a functioning system of taxation and regulation, would drastically reduce Irish gangland crime, overcrowding in our prisons, drug addiction rates, drug related deaths and infections. It would also enable us to address the budget deficit in a meaningful way by eliminating wasteful spending on failed policy, and by putting an estimated 500million euro annually into the taxed economy.

In spite of the increasing evidence that current policies are not achieving their objectives, Irish policy makers have tended to avoid open scrutiny or debate on alternatives. The Government need to come into line with public and academic opinion on the issue of drugs, and quick, because aside from the obvious social benefits, in the current economic climate we can no longer afford to continue this wasteful and utterly ineffective policy of prohibition.

An article by Ruaidhrí O' Conghaile


DECRIMINALIZATION IN PORTUGAL: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, Glenn Greenwald, CATO Institute

THE NATIONAL DRUG STRATEGY 2009 - 2016, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (An Roinn Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta),

Drug Problems and Drug Policies in Ireland: A Quarter of a Century Reviewed, Shane Butler, Administration, 39(3), Autumn 1991, pp.210-235.


Expenditure Review of the Local Drugs Task Forces, October 2006, Goodbody Economic Consultants

Related Link:

 #   Title   Author   Date 
   not only that...     Serf    Tue Aug 30, 2011 04:06 
   Documentary Video about drug legalisation in Portugal over the last 10 years     T    Wed Sep 12, 2012 21:25 

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