James Leonard: Let’s stop treating drug users as criminals

James Leonard, a Corkman who recently spoke on The Tommy Tiernan Show about his experiences of drug addiction and recovery, reveals how Irish drug policy needs to change
James Leonard: Let’s stop treating drug users as criminals
James on the Tommy Tiernan show recently.

IRELAND’S first policy that included drugs which were not used in medicine was The Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977.

Ireland was obliged, under the 1961 Single Convention, to have a policy of criminalisation and penalisation for drug offenders, though the inauguration of the 1977 Act was perhaps hastened by the introduction of heroin into Dublin.

Up until then, Ireland’s drug problem was insignificant. It was official government policy to have addicts treated in a centralised mental hospital as those who grew dependent on substances, mainly alcohol or tranquilizers, were viewed as having a mental illness that could be cured.

On March 31, 1963, out of 19,829 patients in mental hospitals, only 16 were being treated for addiction. Minister for Health Sean Flanagan stated in the ‘Report of the Working Party on Drug Abuse 1968’: “Persons who have become dependent on drugs should be regarded as sick people in need of medical care to be treated with sympathy and understanding.”

This compassionate viewpoint from government quickly dissipated when heroin arrived.

To explain how it became so available in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we must look at the geopolitical environment of the time. New connections and supply routes from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan led to an influx of brown heroin into Britain at a time of economic recession. Cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool saw massive rises in heroin use among the young unemployed population. Across the Irish Sea, intravenous drug use was also on the rise in deprived communities in Dublin.

The criminal justice system became packed with heroin addicts and research in 1997 found that Mountjoy Prison was largely populated by drug users from just six neighbourhoods in Dublin.

Within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, there was supposed to be ‘provision of drug treatment centres within the penal system’ though this was not the case except for a few isolated examples.

The Act also stated that heroin addicts were themselves victims, to the substances and to their social conditions. Though viewed sympathetically by policy makers, gardaí continued to have a zero-tolerance approach to heroin users compared to recreational drug users, who were often dealt with more leniently.

Irish criminologist Paul O’Mahony forwarded a rationale for this when he stated: “Cannabis and stimulant users come from right across the social class spectrum and tend not to be involved in crime other than that intrinsic to drug use.” Heroin users were treated more harshly because they tended to be from working class and deprived areas.

Heroin use dominated the drug policy agenda into the 1990s and the Ministerial Task Force on Measures to Reduce the Harms of Drugs stated Ireland primarily had a heroin problem and “concluded that the heroin problem is most acute in 11 areas — ten in Greater Dublin and in North Cork City”.

The mid-1990s saw a big rise in cases of HIV, syringe robberies, burglaries, drug-related deaths and convictions. The mid to late 1990s saw the government begin to understand that the demand for drugs would continue to grow if there was not a significant effort to combat poverty and social exclusion.

A Ministerial Task Force on Measures to Reduce Demand for Drugs led to the setting up of a National Drugs Strategy Team, Cabinet Committee on Drugs, National Advisory Committee on Drugs, 14 local Drugs Task Forces and 10 regional Drugs Task Forces. The gardaí engaged more with the community via the Joint Policing Committees and Community Policing Fora while Garda Youth Diversion Projects were established in deprived communities to divert young people away from offending behaviour.

However, drug users were still being dealt with punitively in the criminal justice system, which further marginalised an already vulnerable group in Irish society.

The most recent drug strategy document is the first time since the 1960s that drug use is recognised as a health issue in need of a health- led response. In fact, in her forward in the policy document Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery 2017-2025, Minister Catherine Byrne TD stated: “As Minister, I firmly believe in a health-led and person-centred approach to our drug and alcohol problem.”

The national drugs strategy underwent a public consultation and decriminalisation for people found in possession of illicit drugs for personal use a main recommendation. Drugs policy expert Alex Stevens defined decriminalisation as “the removal of sanctions under the criminal law, with optional use of administrative sanctions, e.g. provision of civil fines or court-ordered therapeutic responses.”

In essence, the drugs are still illegal, but the criminal justice system is only used for dealers.

However, in 2018, one year after the strategy launched, 13,445 people were arrested and convicted for possession of drug for personal use. Prison sentences for those convicted of possession for personal use are generally only a few months and according to the Irish Prison Service Annual Report (2017), out of 6,037 prisoners sentenced in 2017, 4,900 were for under 12 months, which is over 80%.

It costs on average €73,802 to jail someone in Ireland for one year.

On August 2, 2019, the Department of Health declared Ireland’s new health-led approach to drug use will now involve a health diversion scheme. Under this, drug users in possession of drugs for personal use will not be prosecuted until the third offence. This may help the student caught with a bit of cocaine on RAG Week but is no use for chronic drug users who are the most vulnerable, ostracised people in society.

Criminalising drug users drives stigmatisation, which further isolates those drug users already on the margins. This is not what a health-led response is supposed to look like.

James Leonard works at Cork Education and Training Board Youth Services.

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