Home > Politicians and the drugs debate.

Pike, Brigid (2006) Politicians and the drugs debate. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 19, Autumn 2006, pp. 16-17.

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In May 2006 some 25 members of Dáil Éireann (including eight Independents) debated a private member’s motion on Ireland’s drugs policy.1 Both the motion and the contributing speakers endorsed the National Drugs Strategy (NDS)2 and its strategic objective, ‘to significantly reduce the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research’ (NDS: Section 6.7). The motion called for increased resources and an intensification of efforts to support the full implementation of the NDS (see Table 1). The opportunity was not taken, however, to debate the larger strategic question of whether or to what extent Ireland’s policy objectives in relation to illicit drugs were still appropriate.   

Table 1   Summary of measures included in Private Member’s Motion, Dáil Éireann, May 20061

Supply reduction

o         Target major drug traffickers

o         Ring-fence seized funds related to the drugs trade for development in communities worst affected by ‘drug scourge’

o         Appropriate sanctions, including sentences, for those involved in drugs trade

o         Increased resources for drug-related Garda activities


o         Ensure access for prisoners  to health and prevention policies and services, including harm-reduction strategies, equivalent to those available in the wider community


o         Formulate, resource and implement an action plan to address cocaine use


o         Increase funding to ensure waiting lists are eliminated

o         Encourage the HSE to return to ‘real partnership’ with community and voluntary groups in addressing problematic drug use

o         Expand spectrum of services

o         Ensure access to counselling and other medical services, without discrimination


o         Ensure take-up of widespread and well-resourced education programmes and campaigns


o         Increase orphan-guardian allowance for grandparents looking after children of their drug-addicted offspring, in line with provision for foster parents

Socio-economic factors

o         Address poverty and inequality, including educational disadvantage

All-Ireland approach

o         Work on an all-Ireland basis to ensure application of strategic objectives in National Drugs Strategy

Strategic leadership

o         Appoint a Minister of State with sole responsibility for the drugs issue

It might have been an opportune time to initiate such a debate because, starting in some 18 months’ time, UN members, including Ireland, will be reporting on their actions in pursuit of the goals and targets set for the year 2008 in the UN Political Declaration on drugs3 and debating the next steps. In addition, the EU Drugs Action Plan 2005–20084 and Ireland’s National Drugs Strategy 2001–20082 will both be expiring. At UN level, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN’s central policy-making body dealing with drug-related matters, has already begun to prepare for the evaluation of the UN action plan.5 International, European and Irish non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also begun to debate the alternatives to the approach favoured by the UN.6  


In Ireland, the Review Group that drew up the NDS in 2000/12 considered alternative strategic approaches, including broadening the harm-reduction approach to include heroin on prescription and/or injecting rooms (NDS: Section 4.13.2). It also noted the debate regarding the decriminalisation of certain controlled substances (NDS: Section 5.2.5). The Review Group concluded, however, that these harm-reduction options were not appropriate but should be kept under review.

Reporting in 2005, the Mid-Term Review (MTR) of the NDS7 reported that the current aims and objectives of the NDS were ‘fundamentally sound’ (MTR: Section 8.2). In relation to harm reduction, the MTR expressed the view that, ‘in light of the increase in the incidence of hepatitis C and the ongoing prevalence of HIV, higher priority should be given to the relevant actions in the Strategy [Actions 62 and 63 relating to needle exchange and other injecting paraphernalia]’ (MTR: Section 5.23).The MTR did not, however, review the wider range of harm-reduction options considered by the Review Group in 2000/1.

Given that the Steering Group that undertook the mid-term review did not present any evidence to support its conclusions regarding the fundamental soundness of the aims and objectives of the NDS, and given that there was a general consensus among contributors to the Dáil debate in May that both the supply of and demand for illicit drugs in Ireland had increased dramatically in the five years since the NDS was published, it might have been expected that the Dáil deputies would review the strategic aims and objectives of the NDS and consider whether the approach being followed was still both appropriate and sufficient.

Arguably, the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs strategy, Noel Ahern TD, invited such debate when he stated, ‘The key drivers of the [illicit drugs] market include both economic factors and the attitude of societies towards illicit drug consumption.’8 While the minister elaborated on the economic factors, he did not explore the links between social attitudes and the drugs situation and the implications for drugs policy, and no other speaker took his cue.

Researchers in the area of Irish drugs policy suggest that there has long been a reluctance on the part of Irish politicians to address the wider strategic questions with regard to illicit drugs. It has been argued that, ideologically, there has been a cross-party consensus that ‘drugs’ not only are a social problem in and of themselves but also exacerbate the crime problem in Ireland, and are evil and to be prohibited.9 It has also been argued that, sociologically, political leaders have generally not encouraged or participated in explicit public debate on the concept of harm reduction in relation to illicit drugs, in order to contain sensitive and potentially divisive national social issues.10

A structural factor that may also inhibit politicians’ engagement with the strategic aspects of the drugs issue is the availability and accessibility of research-based evidence to support their analysis and deliberations. In reviewing the Research pillar of the NDS, the MTR reported that ‘substantial progress’ had been made in filling information gaps but urged agencies to make their information more readily available (MTR: Section 6.13). The MTR did not consider the associated question of whether and how information and research findings were translated into policy and practice. To what extent do researchers understand and work within the ‘real’ world of policy and practice, and to what extent do policy makers, including politicians, understand the value and methods of research and how to apply the lessons of research in formulating policy?11

To enhance the translation process, a series of possible initiatives has been identified,12 including investment in long-term research strategies linked to national and EU policy concerns;  establishment of centres of excellence to co-ordinate and/or carry out research; the establishment of think tanks alongside the research centres, comprising academics, policy makers and practitioners, to offer detached reflection and cultural questioning on what the research means in a wider context, and alternative approaches and questions; and promotion of a stakeholder partnership comprising three-way collaboration between government, science and the market for the exchange of knowledge and the development of policy.  

1.        Private Member’s Business. Drug Abuse: Motion (23–24 May 2006) Parliamentary Debates Dáil Éireann Official Report: Unrevised. Vol. 620, No 1, cols. 54–85 and Vol. 620, No 2, cols. 493–528. See www.oireachtas.ie

2.        Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation (2001) Building on experience: National drugs strategy 2001–2008. Dublin: Stationery Office.

3.        UN Political Declaration. 9th plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS), 10 June 1998. A/RES/S-20/2.

4.        EU Drugs Action Plan 2005–2008. 2005/C 168/01.

5.        Commission on Narcotic Drugs (2006) Report on the forty-ninth session (8 December 2005 and 13-17 March 2006).  E/2006/28, E/CN.7/2006/10.

6.        At international level, see, for example, the websites of the Senlis Council  and the International Drug Policy Consortium at http://idpc.net/  In Europe, on 6–7 November 2006, ENCOD (European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies) will be hosting a conference in collaboration with the GUE and Green Party factions of the European Parliament on ‘European Alternatives on Drug Policies – the Road to Vienna 2008’; see www.encod.org for further information. In Ireland, on 28 August 2006, three NGOs – the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI) and the Union for Improved Services, Communication and Education (UISCE) – held a public forum entitled ‘Rethinking the War on Drugs’; see www.iprt.ie for further information.

7.        Steering group for the mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy (2005) Mid-term review of the national drugs strategy 2001–2008. Dublin: Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

8.        Ahern N (23 May 2006) Parliamentary Debates Dáil Éireann Official Report: Unrevised. Vol. 620, No 1, col. 69.

9.        Murphy T (2002) Drugs, crime and prohibitionist ideology. In O’Mahony P (ed.) Criminal Justice in Ireland. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

10.    Butler S and Mayock P (2005) “An Irish solution to an Irish problem”: Harm reduction and ambiguity in the drug policy of the Republic of Ireland. International Journal of Drug Policy, 16(6): 415–422.

11.    For a case study of how research has translated into policy and practice in Ireland, see McGarry K (2004) ‘An evidence-based policy in a moral panic: Linking local drugs task forces to drug treatment data’. MSc thesis, Trinity College, Dublin.

12.    See R Hartnoll (2004) Drugs and drug dependence: linking research, policy and practice – lessons learned, challenges ahead. Background paper for the Pompidou Group’s Strategic Conference on connecting research, policy and practice, Strasbourg, 6–7 April 2004. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing Group, and Pompidou Group (2004) Connecting research, policy and practice: lessons learned, challenges ahead. Proceedings of Strategic Conference on connecting research, policy and practice, Strasbourg, 6–7 April 2004. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing Group.


Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 19, Autumn 2006
July 2006
Page Range
pp. 16-17
Health Research Board
Issue 19, Autumn 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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