When it comes to narcotics, the only cliche more commonly used than “the war on drugs” is the one that says “the war on drugs has failed”.
Surveys show three-quarters of Irish people have not taken illegal drugs. Is that a sign of the success, or the failure, of drugs policy? It rather depends on what side of the argument you are coming from.
This phrase was rolled out again by Minister for Health Simon Harris on Friday when announcing the Government's new "health-led" approach to drug use.
Promising a “helping hand instead of just a handcuff”, Mr Harris argued for a “compassionate” approach that “offers a person a second chance”. The new policy, he claimed, “will help us battle drug addiction and ultimately save lives”.
Maybe it will. Yet the expert working group on whose findings the Government based its decision found that “the research in this area is complex, incomplete and not capable of providing definitive answers about what the outcome of any given approach will be in the Irish context”.
Effectively this is a “two strikes and you’re out” approach. The first time someone is found with illegal drugs for personal use they will be referred to the HSE for a health screening and “brief intervention”. On the second occasion they may be cautioned by the Garda. Third time around, and they’ll be subject to the current justice-led system.
While Harris deprecated the use of the "handcuff" on recreational drug-users, the chairman of the expert working group, retired judge Garrett Sheehan, in his minority report, uses the word "low-key" to describe current policing in this area.
The figures show that every year about 1,000 people receive a criminal conviction for drugs misuse though rarely does this result in a custodial sentence. In 2017 there were 73 people in jail for personal possession offences, down from 365 in 2015.
As in other areas of society the Government has come under growing pressure to liberalise laws governing drug possession. Among those working in the area the emphasis is on harm reduction, health-led strategies and the destigmatisation of drug users.
“A conviction for a drug offence can, in many instances, have serious consequences for the person convicted. The formal penalty may be lenient (such as a fine) but having a criminal record for such an offence can have far more lasting consequences,” legal expert and working group member Tom O’Malley pointed out.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane published a Bill in 2017 that sought to decriminalise personal drug possession, though the Government halted its progress through the Oireachtas so the working group could complete its deliberations.
The working group, perhaps inevitably, was unable to reach a consensus, with Sheehan issuing a minority report separate from the majority report signed off by the rest of the group. The approach announced by Harris, Minister of State Catherine Byrne and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, is a classic compromise – some will see it as a fudge – between the "health" and "justice" outlooks on the drugs issue.
The measure stops short of the full decriminalisation sought by many working in the sector, but significantly dilutes the existing justice-led approach to drug possession. Its implementation also raises many questions, not least about resources.
The Minister believes about 1,200 drug users a year will require treatment under the new approach, but the funding for these services is a battle that has yet to be fought within Cabinet.
Current experience does not inspire confidence – as Sheehan points out, Merchants Quay Ireland’s rehab centre has a waiting list of more than 250 people, while only 200 out of 19,000 opioid users have been given access to suboxone, a drug that can improve their chances of beating their addiction.