Group to review law on drug possession

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made an early case for decriminalising the possession of drugs just as a high-level expert group is tasked with examining the issue.

The creation of a working group, possibly led by a retired judge, has been recommended by the State’s new national drugs strategy, launched by the Taoiseach yesterday.

He said decriminalisation models had been adopted in other countries, including Portugal, and that “by and large” they had “helped to reduce crime and helped to reduce HIV”.

He said there were “counter views as to whether it was the right way to go”.

He said no parent wanted a situation where their son or daughter made a mistake and for the rest of their lives was stuck with a conviction that will prevent them from traveling overseas and make it harder for them to get a job. “That’s a problem for a lot of people,” he said.

Speaking at the launch of Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, Mr Varadkar said: “We really need to move away from a criminal justice approach to one that is health led and acknowledges putting a criminal conviction on somebody’s name makes it harder for them.”

Health Minister Simon Harris, to whom the working group will report to in 12 months, said the group will comprise medical and legal experts and would ideally be chaired by the likes of a retired judge.

A number of community activists at the launch complained they were not given a copy of the report beforehand, or at least sight of it, while Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan pointed out that none of the six people at the launch top table were from the community or voluntary sector.

He said communities had been the “driving force” of State responses to the drug crisis since the 1990s and had representation at the highest level — but that this partnership approach had “drifted away” and that hopefully, the new strategy would “reverse that”.

Citywide, the community umbrella body, said this was a fundamental issue in determining the success of the new strategy which runs until 2025.

Susan Collins of Addiction Response Crumlin said resources were a key issue: “It’s great having a policy, but if there is no actual resources, it’s not going to happen.” She said resources were needed for community workers and family support workers. She said “communities were being intimidated” and that resources need to be spent on community policing.

Public health expert Dr Joe Barry said actions on dual diagnosis needed to be implemented and said actions on rehabilitation were over a decade old.

Dr Eamon Keenan, national clinical lead for HSE addition services, welcomed the inclusion of alcohol services and said resources were needed to implement services – but noted there was a “good commitment” from government.

The National Family Support Network and UISCE, representing drug users, welcomed the recognition of, and actions for, families and users in the strategy.

The Taoiseach said the Government was very much committed to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and planned to have it passed the Oireachtas by year’s end.

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