We need a U-turn in drug policy, from prison to treatment

Opinion: ‘You can’t see 3,500 crimes not being committed so it is difficult to persuade politicians that treatment is value for money’


In 1998, a Japanese soldier was found hiding in the jungle. He had not realised that the second World War was over. For 43 years he had been trying to avoid capture so he could continue the fight. His predicament was so weird that every news media in the world covered the story.

However, no less weird is the war against drugs. The war has been over for 20 years and we have lost. But we continue to fight in the belief that the war still goes on and can yet be won.

Over the past 20 years, we have spent billions of euro in trying to eradicate illegal drugs, we have enacted tougher and tougher legislation, imprisoned tens of thousands of drug users. And the result? We have an increasing supply of an ever-expanding range of drugs to an increasing number of users in more and more cities and towns – and even villages – in Ireland. There is now, in many parts of this country, a free market in drugs. We sometimes call them “controlled drugs”, when the reality is quite patently the very opposite.

Illegal drugs are, unfortunately, here to stay, despite the best efforts of the Garda Síochána and Customs. Ireland is an open country, with porous borders. As long as you can buy a kilo of cocaine in South America for €700, and sell it in Ireland for €70,000, there will always be people willing to risk being caught. There are five people waiting to take the place of every drug dealer who gets locked up. New synthetic drugs are also readily available over the internet.

Today, drugs, like alcohol, are a part of the world in which most young people grow up. They will be offered drugs, most will experiment with them, and a few will become addicted. Just as parents discuss alcohol with their children as they grow up, now they also have to discuss drugs. Unfortunately, most parents know less about drugs than their children.

The current policy in relation to drug use is to deter people by criminalising the drug user. I recently attended court with a young man who had been charged with possession of cannabis to the value of €2. The case was remanded on four occasions. On each occasion, the prosecuting Garda spent the whole morning in court, a solicitor was appointed under Free Legal Aid, a probation report on the young man was requested. A total waste of time and public money. It was not his first prosecution for possession of cannabis, nor will it be his last.

Of the thousands of drug users I have worked with, not one has ever been deterred by the threat of prosecution. Criminalising the possession of drugs for one’s own personal use is an expensive, but failed, policy.

Window of opportunity

Treating drug users is also an expensive policy but a much more successful one. Every drug user I have worked with has come to a point in their life when they wanted to give up drugs. There is then a small window of opportunity to help them. However, if treatment is not available, or if they have to go on long waiting lists, then that window may close. They become demoralised, lose the motivation to give up drugs, and the opportunity for moving to a life free of drugs is lost.

Treatment options for drug users are very inadequate. For an estimated 20,000 heroin users, there are only about 35 detox beds in the whole country. Outside Dublin, treatment may be unavailable or patchy. Within Dublin, long waiting lists are common.

Two crimes a day

On average, a person using illegal drugs on a regular basis might commit two crimes a day to pay for their habit. If a person joins a six-month waiting list, they may commit 350 crimes while waiting for treatment. If, after five years, they have remained drug-free, society has been spared some 3,500 crimes. Some will commit many more than two crimes a day: two young people who came to our residential detox centre were spending €1,000 a day on their cocaine habit. Of course, you cannot see 3,500 crimes not being committed so it is difficult to persuade politicians that treatment is value for money.

The majority of people in prison today are there because of their addiction. We need to treat drug misuse, as we do alcohol misuse, as a health and social problem rather than a criminal justice problem, and divert resources to education (for parents) and treatment programmes that engage users, families and communities.

To provide good quality treatment, as soon as a drug user wants it, is very expensive. However, not to provide it is also very expensive. Apart from the pain and loss suffered by the victims of crime, there are huge costs involved in Garda time, health care and prison incarceration. We need a U-turn in drug policy, from prison to treatment.

Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest working with homeless people

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