Public support softer laws on drug use

All but one of 87 submissions from the public to an Oireachtas review of drug laws favour decriminalising or softening sanctions for possession.

The Oireachtas Justice Committee is set to urge the Government to “seriously consider” a Portuguese-type decriminalisation model for possession of drugs for personal use.

The news comes amid claims that a document prepared by a top UN expert, recommending all governments consider the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, was withdrawn after pressure from at least one country.

A leaked copy of the paper, which was posted online by UK campaign group Transform and by businessman Richard Branson, said decriminalisation was “permitted” by international drug laws and that criminalisation had “negative consequences for safety, security, and human rights”.

A spokesman for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the document — drafted, it is thought, by the chief of its HIV/Aids section — was “neither a final nor formal document” and “cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy”.

The spokesman said the issue “remains under review” and rejected claims there had been pressure on the UNODC to withdraw it.

Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project welcomed the views of the UN HIV expert and the review of the Oireachtas committee.

“It’s very significant to have these views from within the UNODC, whether sanctioned or not, and to have the likes of high-profile figures like Richard Branson calling for decriminalisation,” he said.

“For us in Ireland, it’s about continuing the discussion around decriminalisation and a wider shift to a health response, involving harm reduction, treatment, rehabilitation and aftercare options.”

Oireachtas Justice Committee chairman David Stanton said he hoped to send its report to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who is in favour of decriminalisation, by the end of November.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald

As reported in the Irish Examiner last June, four members of the committee, including the chairman, visited Lisbon to examine the Portuguese system.

While the Portuguese model has not legally decriminalised drug possession, it treats it as an administrative breach of the law. Someone found in possession is referred to a dissuasion committee, comprising a social worker, a psychologist, and a legal professional.

The model applies to all drugs, not just cannabis, and sets quantities that constitute possession.

The Oireachtas committee set up a review to consider the model and sought submissions from the public.

“We got 87 submissions and only one was negative in relation to the Portuguese model,” said Mr Stanton, who is Fine Gael TD for Cork East. “The overwhelming feeling is that this model needs to be looked at and considered here.”

Minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

The committee heard from 10 community, voluntary and medical groups last week and almost none, according to Mr Stanton, were against going the Portuguese way. He said the Irish Hospital Consultants Association did express caution.

“No one is saying ‘no way’,” he said. “So, we have an amber light to move forward with the proposal and that is what we’re doing. It would be a variation of the Portuguese model.

He said it would have to operate under a joint Department of Justice and Department of Health structure. He said it could use, or model itself on, the existing Drug Court and would parallel plans to set up a pilot Community Court system.

“In our report I’ll expect we’ll say to the minister that this is seriously worth considering,” said Mr Stanton.” It would be an all-party recommendation.

“That would give a lot of support to any minister — in this Government or the next — that is considering it.”

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