Home > CityWide’s evidence base for decriminalization.

Dillon, Lucy (2017) CityWide’s evidence base for decriminalization. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 63, Autumn 2017, pp. 10-11.

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In May 2017, CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign launched a new area on its website dedicated to the evidence base for the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use.1 Decriminalisation in Ireland would involve changing the current law that defines possession of drugs for personal use as a criminal offence. This does not mean that possession for personal use would be legal, as non-criminal penalties may still be applied. Furthermore, it would not affect the law that makes the possession of drugs for sale or supply a criminal offence.


CityWide believes that drug use is a social and health issue not a criminal justice one and it therefore supports decriminalisation.2 While it does not believe that decriminalisation is a ‘panacea for problem drug use’, it argues that the negative consequences of drug use are exacerbated by dealing with it through the criminal justice system. Current Government policy is also to ‘support a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drugs use’ (p. 56).3 Furthermore, the new national drug and alcohol strategy includes an action ‘to consider the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use with a view to making recommendations on policy options to the relevant Minister within 12 months’ (p. 58).4


Evidence base

A range of national data and policy sources are used to describe the situation in Ireland.5 The international elements of the website primarily draw on evidence from three overviews of the international situation and the impact of decriminalisation in countries where it has been introduced.6


Core themes

There are a number of areas within the decriminalisation element of the website, each of which presents evidence on a core theme of the debate.


How criminalisation impacts globally

Four key findings on the effects of criminalising drug possession for personal use were identified: 

  • The level of drug use in a country is not directly related to the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, i.e. a tough enforcement regime does not reduce drug use.
  • Criminalising drug use increases the health risks to which people who use drugs are exposed.
  • Criminalising drug use creates social risk because society tends to see people convicted of drug offences as unproductive criminals. This stigmatisation can lead to discrimination, including reduced support for health-led responses.
  • Punitive drug policies have a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable communities, and increase the health risks for entire populations.7 

Current situation in Ireland

This section of the website provides information on four key areas related to drug use in Ireland: the legislation governing the use of controlled drugs in Ireland; what happens in terms of law enforcement in relation to drug possession offences; an overview of the policy debate on decriminalisation in Ireland and how it has evolved since the 1990s; and the evidence on drug use in Ireland and its associated problems.


Impacts of decriminalisation

Following on from the findings related to how criminalisation impacts globally, this area explores the effects of decriminalising drug possession for personal use. Three key findings were identified: 

  • The level of drug use in a country is not directly affected by decriminalising drug possession and use. The available evidence shows neither an increase nor a decrease in the level of drug use.
  • Decriminalisation is associated with improved health outcomes, as more people who use drugs feel able to access treatment. However, the evidence also indicates that other factors, such as improved harm reduction and treatment services, contribute significantly to the improved health outcomes.
  • Decriminalisation leads to improved social outcomes as criminal justice system costs come down and as the prospects of those detected with drugs look up, e.g. in terms of employment and their relationships with significant others. Positive results have also been reported with regard
  • to recovery and recidivism.8 

UN and decriminalisation

The situation with decriminalisation and the United Nations (UN) is complex. On the one hand, member states need to comply with the UN drug conventions that are often cited as being prohibitive of decriminalisation. However, on the other hand, criminalising the possession of drugs for personal use ‘breaches public health and human rights standards, which are also supported by the UN’. This section of the website explores this situation, noting that a number of key UN agencies have called for decriminalisation.


Which countries have decriminalised and how?

This section of the website explores the different models of decriminalisation that have been implemented internationally. It draws on a report by Release, a UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, that found ‘a surge toward this drug policy model in the past 15 years’.9 There is also a link to the e-tool developed by the International Drug Policy Consortium, which allows the user to compare models of decriminalisation globally (see also related article in this issue of Drugnet).


There is also a frequently asked questions section that includes definitions of key terms in the debate. The site can be accessed at: https://www.citywide.ie/decriminalisation/


1 The CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign site on decriminalisation can be accessed at https://www.citywide.ie/decriminalisation/ .

2 The term ‘decriminalisation’ will be used for the remainder of this article to refer to the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use.

3 Department of the Taoiseach (2016) A programme for a partnership government. Dublin: Government Publications Office. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25508/

4 Department of Health (2017) Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017­—2025. Dublin: Department of Health. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27603/

5 Examples of the sources used include: the Irish Statute Book; Garda Recorded Crime Statistics from the Central Statistics Office; the Courts Service Annual Report; and the National Drug Treatment Reporting System.

6 The three overviews used are: (a) Home Office (2014) Drugs: international comparators. London: Home Office, United Kingdom. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/22874/; (b) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations (2010) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations. Available online at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/SRRightHealthIndex.aspx ; (c) Hughes C, Ritter A, Chalmers J, Lancaster K, Barratt M and Moxham-Hall V (2016) Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia — a briefing note. Sydney: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25238/

7 CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign (2017) What are the effects of criminalisation? Available online at https://www.citywide.ie/decriminalisation/global.html

8 CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign (2017) Impacts of decriminalisation. Available online at https://www.citywide.ie/decriminalisation/impacts.html

9 Rosmarin A and Eastwood N (2012) A quiet revolution: drug decriminalisation policies in practice across the globe. London: Release. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/18327/

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 63, Autumn 2017
November 2017
Page Range
pp. 10-11
Health Research Board
Issue 63, Autumn 2017

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