President Michael D Higgins said people are witnessing a “shift internationally” in the treatment of drug use, from a criminal matter to a public health issue.
His comments, made at the 20th anniversary conference of the Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign, follows rapid developments in Irish politics on drug laws.
Last week, the Oireachtas Justice Committee recommended that the country adopt a model similar to Portugal’s, involving the effective decriminalisation of drug use and referral of users to counselling service.
Drugs strategy minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has consistently called for the decriminalisation of drug use and the establishment of facilities where drugs could be injected legally and under supervision.
President Higgins said the effectiveness of global drug policy will be discussed in April at the UN General Assembly Special Session in New York.
“There is no doubt that, in the deepening debate on drug policy, we are witnessing a shift internationally from a criminal justice response to drug use to a response based primarily on a public health perspective,” said President Higgins.
“Ireland will contribute to this debate, and continue to underline the importance of promoting a balanced approach to the global drug problem, that is underpinned by the promotion and protection of human rights.”
President Higgins said figures published by the European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction (Emcdda) indicate that Ireland had the third highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the EU.
He said behind these statistics was the reality of “lives ruined, futures lost and families ruptured”.
Mr Ó Ríordáin announced that John Carr, former general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, would chair the steering group to oversee the development of the new national drugs strategy, with the current strategy ending next year.
He said that an international expert review group, led by Paul Griffiths, the respected scientific director of the Emcdda, would review the current strategy.
The minister said he and Health Minister Leo Varadkar would bring proposals to Cabinet “shortly” regarding the establishment of a supervised injecting centre.
Citywide co-ordinator Anna Quigley said “drug users are not problem people” but people whose drug use may be a problem.
She said intimidation of drug users and families by gangs was a major issue. Three quarters of victims did not report it to gardaí because of fear of reprisal.
Nearly four in 10 of those intimidated were physically assaulted, while two thirds suffered health problems.