Q. What is decriminalisation?
A. Very simply, decriminalisation is the process by which something goes from being a crime to not being a crime. Decriminalisation it is not the same as legalisation or regulation – in a decriminalised system, drugs remain illegal. We just change the way we deal with people who use drugs – treating them as people who require a health intervention, rather than people who deserve to be punished.
Q. Why should we decriminalise drugs for personal use?
A. Possession for personal use has been a crime in Ireland for over forty years, but over that period the number of people using drugs has increased dramatically, as has the harm caused by drugs. How we currently respond does not work and needs to change.
Criminalising people causes significant harm. Rather than providing services and interventions, people are labeled criminals, adding to the stigma and shame. When people are criminalised for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, the stigma they face can often negatively impact on securing a job or travelling outside of Ireland later in life, further compounding their shame. Very often, those criminalised are already facing challenges in their lives and come from backgrounds where opportunities have been limited.
If we do not respond with help and support, it can result in more problems and further encounters with the criminal justice system, leading people down a path they did not see for themselves, a life they did not choose.
Criminalisation of drugs for personal use does not reduce prevalence of possession in general, nor is it a cost-effective way of addressing drug use. In 2017, there were 12,201 recorded incidents of possession of drugs for personal use, representing over 72% of all drug offences. Every year, the courts deal with thousands of charges of simple possession. Every year, people go to prison for simple possession. All of this is at a significant cost to the Irish taxpayer – in 2017, the cost of keeping someone in prison was over €1,300 per week - and causes more harm than good.
Q. What would happen if we decriminalised drugs for personal use?
A. Drugs can be dangerous and can cause harm in people’s lives – as a society we should be concerned about that. But the criminal law is not the tool to use to address this issue. What we need to do is to bring our response in line with our national drugs policy, which recognizes that personal drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice one.
People who are found to be in possession of drugs should always be given the opportunity to make safer and heathier choices. For a lot of people, this could be pretty low level – a brief assessment and evidence-based advice on keeping themselves safe and the potential harms of their drug use. If someone is experiencing difficulty with their drug use, more intensive interventions could be offered.
Each person who uses drugs is different and should be treated as such. By choosing to respond with care and compassion, we have the chance to rebuild lives and reduce crime.
By decriminalising people who use drugs - Ireland can manage risks related to drug use better and have better outcomes for the person, their family and the community.
Q. What would this alternative approach look like?
A. We would like to see the adoption of a health based approach to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use, a trend we are seeing internationally.
This is a compassionate and pragmatic response, grounded in the best available evidence.
This is an opportunity to make an early intervention, when it matters the most, and provide those in need with guidance and support.
This can help reduce harm, support recovery and save taxpayers money.
Q. What are the key issues again?
Drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue
How we currently respond does not work and needs to change.
Criminalising people for personal use does not reduce drug use and does not discourage drug use. But it does have significant adverse impacts on people’s lives, restricting options and opportunity.
People who are found to be in possession of drugs should always be given the opportunity to make safer and healthier choices.
We need interventions, not sanctions. We need to support, not shame.