Former users to sit on Government working group examining decriminalisation

Two former drug users are to sit on a Government working group tasked with examining the case for decriminalising drug possession in Ireland, writes Security Correspondent Cormac O'Keeffe.

The body – which is being chaired by a retired senior judge – does not contain any representatives from community or voluntary groups working in the area and is dominated by government and state agencies.

The group will commission research examining approaches taken in other countries to the possession of drugs for personal use “in order to identify a model appropriate to the Irish context”.

In a shared announcement with the ministers for health and justice, drugs strategy minister Catherine Byrne said that the group would be chaired by retired Judge of the Court of Appeal Garret Sheehan.

The working group will conduct a “wide-ranging and thorough” public consultation, with the purpose of allowing “all interested” people and organisations to make submissions.

The first meeting will take place on 11 December and the committee will report within 12 months.

Minister Byrne said that a “humane and people-centred” approach to people who use drugs was at the heart of the new drugs strategy, 'Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery'.

She said it was appropriate that “two people who have used drugs” will sit on the group, so that their experiences can “inform the deliberations”.

Health Minister Simon Harris said the Programme for Government contained a firm commitment to support a “health-led rather than criminal justice approach” to drugs use.

“We need to ensure people affected by drug problems are given every opportunity to recover from addiction and get on with their lives,” he said.

He said the working group was an important first step towards finding a “more rehabilitative response” to people who use illegal substances.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said: “While this is a sensitive policy issue for many people, we have to be cognisant of drug policy developments over the years, and the trend internationally towards less punitive approaches to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.

“At the same time, we must ensure that the public is protected from dangerous or potentially dangerous and harmful substances.”

He said: “Judge Sheehan’s extensive experience will guide the Working Group towards finding the right balance in any alternative approaches identified for consideration by the Government in due course.”

The working group is heavily dominated by Government departments and agencies and there is no representation from community or voluntary groups working in the drugs area.

There is a representative from the Department of Justice, the HSE, the Health Research Board, An Garda Síochána, The Probation Service, the DPP's office as well as two drug users and an academic expert.

The working group's establishment follows a recommendation from the Oireachtas Justice Committee for a harm reduction and rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, similar to the strategy adopted in Portugal.

Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, welcomed the establishment of the group.

“Criminalising people for possession of small amounts of drugs is ineffective as a policy – it does not reduce prevalence of possession in general, nor is it a cost-effective way of addressing drug use,” he said.

“Conversely, it can cause great damage to those it effects. Being labelled a criminal is stigmatising and can affect things most of us take for granted like employment or the ability to travel abroad.”


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