People found with small amounts of illegal drugs should not be criminalized, committee says – The Irish Times


A health-focused approach for people found with small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use would be better than criminalizing them, an Oireachtas committee has said.

Personal possession should be decriminalized to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with drug use, which can deter vulnerable people from seeking drug treatment, several speakers at the justice committee said on Tuesday.

A health-focused approach with better investment in support services and proper regulation of drugs such as cannabis should go hand in hand, they insisted.

However, a group of doctors concerned about the harmful effects of cannabis have warned against decriminalization.

Some members of the committee, including Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward and Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny, have spoken out over concerns that decriminalizing cannabis and/or drugs could benefit organized crime gangs.

Regardless of the committee’s opinion on the legalization of cannabis, there is “no justification for criminalizing people who use drugs,” said Dr. Garrett McGovern of Priority Medical Clinic, a drug rehabilitation center.

Ireland could learn from drug policies in other countries like Portugal, which has one of the lowest fatal overdose and HIV rates in Europe, as well as a drop in related crime to drugs since 2001, when a regime of administrative, rather than criminal, sanctions for people possessing drugs was adopted. The move was made alongside an expansion of drug harm reduction and treatment services, he pointed out.

The committee heard from Dr. McGovern and others on Tuesday as part of its review of whether the current approach to small amounts for personal use is counterproductive in terms of deterring drug use.

Questions discussed included whether administrative rather than criminal sanctions would be more appropriate and cost-effective in deterring drug use. The committee heard how other countries, including Portugal, Malta and Switzerland, have approached the issues.

Although stakeholders differed on some issues, all were in favor of a health-centred approach.

Martin Condon of Patients for Safe Access, a group seeking to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic and research purposes, and Crainn, a group created to “educate about all things cannabis”, including uses drug treatments, supported decriminalization.

Dr Nuno Capaz, from the Portuguese Ministry of Health’s Deterrence Commission, which was set up to enforce Portugal’s administrative sanctions regime, described how the regime works.

Dr Bobby Smyth of the Cannabis Risk Alliance (CRA), an alliance of physicians, feared that less severe penalties for personal use of cannabis compared to other drugs would perpetuate the idea that cannabis is a drug more harmless than the others. More people under the age of 25 seek treatment for cannabis dependence than treatment for alcohol dependence, he said.

The drug policy conversation has been overtaken for some time by those advocating decriminalization when the focus should be on treatment, he said. Ireland has made notable progress on treatment, he added.

Those who support decriminalization have argued criminalization has resulted in the unregulated drug market and this was particularly problematic in terms of cannabis supply. There has been an increase in counterfeit cannabis products that contain harmful chemicals that can cause serious health complications or prove fatal, the committee said.

An educational model aimed at harm reduction will require adequate policy and funding to ensure its spread across the country, the committee was told. The success of “drug testing” tents at UK festivals has been mentioned.

Fianna Fáil TD committee chair James Lawless, noting that there were “strong” opinions by committee members on several of the issues raised, said she would produce a report after the summer recess.


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