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Connolly, Johnny (2007) Drug Policy Action Group: policy paper 1. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 21, spring 2007 , pp. 25-26.

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Criminal justice drug policy in Ireland

The Drug Policy Action Group (DPAG)1 is a member of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of 24 national and international non-governmental organisations established ‘to promote objective and open debate on the effectiveness, direction and content of drug policies’ and to support ‘evidence-based policies that are effective in reducing drug-related harm’.2 The first policy paper published by the DPAG examines current criminal justice drug policy in Ireland.3 The paper was written by two leading commentators on the drugs issue in Ireland, Seán Cassin OFM, founder of Merchants Quay Ireland and a member of the National Drugs Strategy Team, and Dr Paul O’Mahony, Trinity College lecturer and author of a number of books on the Irish criminal justice system.

An analysis of criminal justice policy must consider not only the way in which drug laws are formed in statute but also how they are implemented in practice throughout the system, from police to courts. Highlighting the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary, the authors illustrate this point by suggesting that ‘sentencing practice by judges tends to be more lenient than the laws envisage with only a small proportion of all convictions for all drug related offences resulting in a prison sentence’ (p. 3).

The causative complexity of the drugs–crime relationship is not, the authors suggest, sufficiently reflected in policy formation. For example, the report criticises ‘most politicians’ and An Garda Siochána for adhering to policy statements that ‘explicitly minimise distinctions between drugs and forms of use’ (p. 3). Present policies in Ireland, they argue, ‘make no distinction between harms resulting from different kinds of drug use and no distinction between the actions of different user groups’. According to the authors, a consequence of this perceived failure to distinguish between the harmful effects of different drugs is that it can encourage misperceptions among experimental drug users and lead them into further more harmful drug use. It is argued, for example, that people who occasionally use cannabis and ecstasy with little ill effect ‘can be led by the prevalent exaggerated claims about the dangers of the less dangerous drugs to dismiss as equally harmless the more problematic drugs like heroin or crack cocaine’ (p. 4).

The central argument of the report is that there is an excessive reliance on legislation and the criminal justice system as a mechanism for dealing with the country’s illegal drug problems and that this is generating more problems than it is solving. This apparent imbalance is reflected in disproportionate expenditure on drug services by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, when compared with expenditure by the Department of Health and Children. Furthermore, the authors argue that most of the recently introduced criminal drug laws target ‘already disadvantaged drug using groups’ rather than drug suppliers. They suggest that, given that most drug-related prosecutions are for possession rather than supply,

it is the user who is predominantly targeted and more deeply inserted into a criminal justice system that can do little to promote personal development or the removal of obstacles to personal growth. This over reliance on the criminal system merely serves to recycle successive generations through criminal processes that become a life norm that perpetrates [sic] the criminal and disadvantaged sector. (p. 4)

Accepting that supply control initiatives can offer ‘a containment of criminal elements’, the authors argue that an over-reliance on this approach promotes public attitudes that are both anti-drug and anti-drug-user. They suggest that, at times of ‘moral panic’, and fuelled by an often alarmist media approach, public and political attitudes towards drug users can harden, thus creating and perpetuating ‘a culture of marginalised people’ who are also criminalised.

The primary focus of drug policy, according to the authors, should be on addressing the demand for drugs and the reasons why some people engage in problem drug use. They advocate a humanistic approach to tackling such problems, premised on the belief that ‘people are capable and willing to develop themselves when the internal and external obstacles to that development are removed or reduced’ (p. 5). Calling for what they regard as a more appropriate balance between supply control and demand reduction initiatives, the authors highlight ‘ambiguities’ or apparent conflicts in policy approaches. For example, anti-social behaviour measures such as evictions obtained under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997 can render drug users homeless, thereby contributing to increased levels of ‘drug use, nuisance and health risks’ (p. 5). Another example they cite is what they see as the ‘persistent disparity in approaches between the Health Services and the Prison Services whereby equal access to services ceases for those beginning a custodial sentence’. The report calls for a greater use of ‘pragmatic’ approaches to problematic drug use, such as methadone prescription and needle exchange.

Despite the centrality of the multi-agency and partnership approach to the National Drugs Strategy 2001–2008, the authors question whether there is ‘adequate understanding or commitment’ to the partnership approach at senior levels in the departments of Justice, Health and Finance. In support of this position, the authors identify what they see as ‘the failure to mainstream pilot projects and provide them with a statutory framework, the lack of projected plans to cover the ongoing developments in service delivery, and [the] failure to apply benchmarking to NGOs’ (p. 5). They state that the perceived failure at departmental level has ramifications throughout the whole infrastructure of the National Drugs Strategy.

This apparent lack of partnership working at government department level leads to considerable frustration in the system at local, regional and national team levels and especially amongst those who are exceptionally committed to the partnership approaches. (p. 5)

Finally, the authors call upon the National Drugs Strategy Team (NDST) ‘to assume its hitherto dormant role of initiating and developing policy for the Government’ (p. 6).

The DPAG makes a number of specific recommendations, including:

·       The Cabinet sub committee on social inclusion should request the Law Reform Commission to assist them to review and propose repeals or revisions of drug laws.

·       The NDST should appoint a dedicated policy sub-group to review changes in Ireland’s criminal justice drug policy.

·       Ireland should adopt a system of classification of drug substances similar to that in Britain, where drugs are grouped on the basis of their harmfulness to the individual and to society.

·       The role of public representatives on local and regional drugs task forces should be focused on implementing better drug laws which make a distinction between drug activities that actually cause harm and those with low or no harmful consequences.

·       The Health Service Executive should support greater access to harm reduction facilities like needle exchanges, safe injection rooms and more widely available alternative prescribing options for long-term drug users.

·       An Garda Síochána should develop more focused programmes of training in harm reduction approaches for Garda recruits. 

Despite some academic contributions and a discussion of the merits of cannabis decriminalisation at the National Crime Forum,4 Irish debate in the area of criminal justice drug policy has been limited. The DPAG report is an important contribution in that respect.

1.    [No longer exists]

2.    http://idpc.net/

3.    Cassin S and O’Mahony P (2006) Criminal justice drug policy in Ireland. Policy Paper 1. Dublin: Drug Policy Action Group.

4.    National Crime Forum (1998) National Crime Forum: report 1998. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Item Type:Article
Issue Title:Issue 21, spring 2007
Date:January 2007
Page Range:pp. 25-26
Publisher:Health Research Board
Volume:Issue 21, spring 2007
EndNote:View
Accession Number:HRB (Available)
Subjects:MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Policy > Policy on substance use > Prohibition (Substance use public policy)
MP-MR Policy, planning, economics, work and social services > Policy > Policy on substance use > Supply reduction policy
MM-MO Crime and law > Law enforcement and the justice system
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland

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