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Pike, Brigid (2016) Help not Harm symposium. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 57, Spring 2016, p. 12.

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On 28 January 2016 Help not Harm held a pre-election symposium in Dublin with contributors speaking on three themes – failures of the criminal justice approach and of government efforts, and exploring what works?1


Failures of the criminal approach

Catherine Comiskey, Head of School of Nursing and Midwifery, TCD, outlined how the growing body of research-based evidence shows that drug treatment ‘works’ and strengthens the case for a stronger focus on respecting the human rights of drug users.


Peter McVerry, Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust,2 argued that, given that the ‘war on drugs’ has not worked and given that it has proved impossible to reduce the supply of drugs, it is important to focus on seeking to reduce demand. He called for greater investment in treatment options – to eliminate waiting lists and to expand residential and after-care service provision. He argued that this additional investment could be cost-neutral if decriminalisation were adopted as a policy at the same time: the savings in the criminal justice system could be channelled into drug treatment.


Mark Kelly, Executive Director of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL), spoke about the submission that ICCL had made to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on the review of Ireland’s approach to the possession of limited quantities of certain drugs in August 2015.3 In it the ICCL stated:


Human-rights-sensitive drug policy should be evidence- or science-based. While the state has a recognised, albeit variable, margin of appreciation, human-rights-based policy should not be ideology- or prejudice-driven, nor should it be judgmental. There is a strong case for redesigning drug policies if it is true that they are not achieving their objectives and, instead, have significant unwanted, undesirable or even unacceptable effects, all the more if they impinge on the enjoyment of human rights.


Kelly went on to discuss five articles in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and how drug policies can contravene each of them: 

  • Right to life (Art 2 ECHR)
  • Prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Art 3 ECHR)
  • Prohibition of forced labour/slavery (Art 4 ECHR)
  • Right to liberty and personal freedom (Art 5 ECHR)
  • Prohibition of discrimination (Art 14 ECHR) 

Damon Barrett, Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy,4 took the argument further, arguing that drug prohibition per se is contrary to human rights, in other words, from a human rights perspective the use of criminal law to achieve a social goal is inappropriate.


Government efforts

Cormac O’Keefe of the Irish Examiner interviewed two TDs – Jonathan O’Brien of Sinn Féin and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party. Both politicians spoke in favour of decriminalisation. They pointed out that various harm reduction measures, such as medically-supervised injecting centres and pill testing, entail some degree of decriminalised drug use.


What works?

Josie Smith, Head of Substance Misuse at Public Health Wales,5 described two public health programmes operating in Wales: 

  • WEDINOS – a national framework for the collection, analysis and dissemination of information relating to novel and/or unknown substances and combinations of substances, both psychoactive and performance/image enhancing drugs, to improve the provision of relevant harm reduction advice and service development.
  • Harm Reduction Database Wales – a national web-based surveillance system to evidence effective interventions including needle and syringe programmes, take-home Naloxone, fatal and non-fatal drug poisoning reviews and sexual health.


Aisling Reidy, Senior Legal Advisor with Human Rights Watch,6 described the work of Human Rights Watch based in New York. She noted that a range of UN bodies such as UNAIDS have called for a harm reduction approach to be adopted by the UN drug policy agencies.


Denis O’Driscoll, Chief II Pharmacist in HSE Addiction Services, spoke about the Naloxone Project which was launched in Ireland in May 2015.


Concluding discussion

In the concluding discussion, several themes were highlighted: 

  • Saving lives and reducing the harms of drugs are the priority.
  • Drug policy needs to get out of the way of good social policy.
  • A human rights approach to drug policy needs an evidence base.


1For more information, visit http://www.helpnotharm.org/

2 For more information, visit https://www.pmvtrust.ie/

3 Retrieved 1 February 2016 http://www.iccl.ie/iccl-submission-to-the-oireachtas-joint-committee-on-justice-defence--equality-on-the-review-of-irelands-approach-to-possession-of-limited-quantities-of-certain-drugs.html

4 For more information, visit http://www.hr-dp.org/

5 For more information, visit http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/888/page/72997

6 For more information, visit https://www.hrw.org/

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention, Policy
Issue Title
Issue 57, Spring 2016
May 2016
Page Range
p. 12
Health Research Board
Issue 57, Spring 2016

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