Home > Politicians call for drug policy reforms.

Pike, Brigid (2016) Politicians call for drug policy reforms. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 56, Winter 2016, pp. 10-12.

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In November 2015 a number of high-profile Irish politicians called for a variety of reforms in drug policy including medically-supervised injecting facilities; decriminalisation of drug use; the adoption of compassion, human rights and equality, community and democratic participation as appropriate platforms on which to think about the drugs problem; and the adoption of a health rather than a criminal justice approach to the drugs problem. Whether this month will be remembered as a turning point will depend on whether and how the debate is taken forward by political parties in the run-up to the 2016 general election, and whether and how the debate is reflected in Ireland’s third national drugs strategy, due by the end of 2016.1


Minister of State with responsibility for the Drugs Strategy

On 2 November Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin gave the keynote address at a meeting of the London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project.2 He outlined his views in favour of two new harm-reduction options.

Medically-supervised injecting facilities

‘Addiction is not a choice, it’s a healthcare issue. This is why I believe it is imperative that we approach our drug problem in a more compassionate and sensitive way. One of the key things that I aim to achieve during my remaining time in office is the introduction of a medically supervised injecting centre for intravenous drug users. … I have asked officials in my Department to examine proposals for the provision of medically supervised injecting facilities as a response to this issue. This is in line with similar models in Sydney and parts of Europe. … as the recent spike in blood-borne viruses in Dublin was among those who are most likely to avail of supervised injecting facilities, I hope that the introduction of these facilities may reduce the risk of future spikes occurring.’


‘Since taking up my new role as Minister for Drugs, I have spoken to a lot of people who would like to see a more compassionate approach to those who experience drug problems. Too often those with drug problems suffer from stigma, due to a lack of understanding or public education about the nature of addiction. This stigma can be compounded for those who end up with a criminal record due to possession of drugs for their own use.

‘It is against this background that there is now an emerging debate in Ireland on whether an alternative approach to the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs for personal use should be considered.

‘I am in favour of a decriminalisation model, but it must be one that suits the Irish context and it must be evidence-based.   I believe that this kind of approach will only work if it is accompanied by timely treatment and harm reduction services, backed up by wrap-around supports which foster recovery – such as housing, health and social care.   Above all, the model must be person-centred and involve an integrated approach to treatment and rehabilitation based on a continuum of care with clearly defined referral pathways.’

Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality

On 5 November the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality of the Oireachtas (Houses of Parliament) released a report recommending ‘a harm-reducing and rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs’.3 Following a visit by a delegation representing the Committee to Portugal in mid-2015 and further investigation and deliberation at home, the Committee concluded that there is merit in further exploring the Portuguese model and in examining how it may be adapted for use in an Irish context. The Committee suggested that a health/counselling/ treatment approach might be more effective and more appropriate for those found in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use rather than imposing a criminal sanction resulting in a lifelong criminal record.

Specific recommendations

The Committee:

  1. strongly recommended the introduction of a harm-reducing and rehabilitative approach, whereby the possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use, could be dealt with by way of a civil/administrative response and rather than via the criminal justice route;
  2. recommended that discretion for the application of this approach should remain with An Garda Síochána/health providers;
  3. recommended that any harm-reducing and rehabilitation approach be applied on a case-by-case basis, with appropriately resourced services available to those affected;
  4. drew attention to the success of ‘informal’ interaction with users when referred to the ‘Dissuasion Committees’ in Portugal and recommended that such an approach should be employed in Ireland;
  5. recommended that resources be invested in training and education on the effects of drugs and that appropriate treatment be made available to those who need to avail of same; and
  6. recommended that research be undertaken to ensure that the adoption of any alternative approach be appropriate in an Irish context.


The President of Ireland

On 12 November Michael D Higgins gave the opening address at CityWide’s 20th anniversary conference, held in Dublin, which was entitled ‘Our Communities, Our World – A Drugs Policy that Works’. 4 While the President did not comment on drug policy, he did discuss the principles that he believes should underpin and inform public policy.  A selection of his comments are reproduced below.


Equality and human rights

‘A main theme of my Presidency has been to build an inclusive Republic – one in which all citizens are treated with equal dignity and respect and are empowered to participate in our democracy.  As a society we have made progress in realising equality for many groups … If we are to achieve the goal of a true Republic and give expression to the vision of universal human rights, then we must seek out and embrace those of our fellow citizens who are most vulnerable and suffer the greatest exclusion. … drug users and those affected by addiction are often in that position of exclusion and denial of citizenship. They are often regarded as being outside or even below the community of rights-holders in our society. Their addiction – a medical and social condition which causes them suffering and impairment – is used as a basis to dehumanise drug users.  That dehumanisation takes the form of stigmatisation and derogatory language; and it leads to a denial of services, a lack of voice, and even, on occasion, is used as a justification for victimisation.’



‘It is often to their community that addicts turn as they seek to reclaim their lost selves and become, once again, engaged citizens with a lifetime of possibility in front of them.  For some time now the value of a community approach and active citizenship in supporting those struggling with addiction, and providing a base on which to build effective policy, has been widely recognised.  There can be no doubt about the real merit in allowing individuals to engage and participate in the decisions which affect and shape their communities, and the critical role of communities in ensuring long term sustainable solutions to problems such as drug abuse within our society.’


Participative citizenship and democracy

 ‘As a country we owe a great debt to CityWide who, across the years have reached out to those who struggle to address addiction in their lives and to live creatively and realise their own unique path and endless possibilities.  Your work continues to be vital as we work to craft a shared future in which all our citizens are treated with dignity, allowed a voice and a right to participate in society. … CityWide is a valuable and uplifting example of participative citizenship and democracy, reminding us of all that is best about Irish society.’ 

1 For an account of Dáil debates on the drugs issue over the past 10 years, see Pike B (2014) Dáil debate on cannabis. Drugnet Ireland (49): 6–8, https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21673/ ; Pike B (2012) Politicians and the drugs debate – six years on. Drugnet Ireland, (41): 10 www.drugsandalcohol.ie/17272/ ; and Pike B (2006) Politicians and the drugs debate. Drugnet Ireland, (19): 16–17. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/11285/

2 Address by Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD to the London School of Economics IDEAS Forum on 2 November 2015. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24742/

3 Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality (2015, 5 November) Report of the Committee on a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24750/

4 Opening address at the CityWide 20th Anniversary Conference, Croke Park, Dublin, 12 November 2015. Retrieved on 16 November 2015   http://www.president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/opening-address-of-the-citywide-20th-anniversary-conference

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 56, Winter 2016
January 2016
Page Range
pp. 10-12
Health Research Board
Issue 56, Winter 2016

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