A poll carried out by Red C for Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign found 49% of people favoured decriminalising drugs, with 51% against the move.
The survey found that men (56%) and young people aged between 18 and 34 (58%) were more supportive of the legislative change.
The survey, conducted online using a national representative sample of 1,000 adults, also found 70% of respondents did not regard people who are addicted to drugs as criminals, but more as victims. Some 80% of people believed all drug users should have access to the treatment they require.
Citywide held a seminar yesterday, entitled A Health- Led Approach to Drug Use in Ireland, at which it presented the survey’s findings.
It said decriminalisation would mean that people found in possession of drugs for personal use would not be given a criminal conviction.
Depending on the circumstances, they could receive a warning, a fine or be directed to drug awareness classes or appropriate treatment.
Citywide, a long-established umbrella body of local drug projects, said that legalisation was a different approach, which involved the regulation by the state of the purchase, importation and sale of drugs.
Speaking at the Citywide conference, Niamh Eastwood of Release, a UK drug- research body, said that criminalising people who use drugs was a waste of state resources and a penalty disproportionate to the act.
“Ireland currently has one of the highest drug-related death rates in Europe. It is impossible to deny that a criminal justice approach to drug use contributes to such shockingly high figures,” she said.
Figures show that Ireland has the fourth highest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe, more than three times the EU average.
“Punitive approaches lead to poor education around safer drug use and reinforce societal stigma, which can deter the people who need help from accessing health, harm reduction or treatment services,” said Ms Eastwood.
She said that research from more than 25 jurisdictions from across the world showed that “when done well” decriminalisation can bring social, economic, and health benefits.
“Furthermore, despite what critics of reforming drug laws believe, this approach does not result in increased drug use but instead reduces problematic drug use,” she said.
The Programme for Partnership Government commits to pursuing “a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drug use” and a new National Drugs Strategy is being drafted.
A year ago, the cross-party Oireachtas Justice Committee unanimously recommended the State follow the Portuguese model, which involves a form of decriminalisation of possession.