Michael Clifford: Irish laws on drugs need to grow up

What is required is grown up thinking that is informed not by prejudices and attitudes prevalent over the last four or five decades, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Irish laws on drugs need to grow up

In 2001 Portugal decriminalised drugs like cannabis leading to a nearly 50% decrease in convictions and imprisonments for drug offences, including trafficking, between 2001 and 2015. The recent change in the Garda approach is a welcome start to adopting the same apprpoach in this country. Picture: PA Wire

Just before Christmas, drug policy in this state grew up a little. An Garda Síochána announced that it was changing its approach to people found to be in possession of cannabis for personal use.

As of December 14, this offence will attract an adult caution, which in lay person’s terms is a warning. The officer at the scene retains the discretion to act in this manner as opposed to issuing a charge, but the emphasis has definitely shifted to avoiding prosecution for a first offence.

The change has been in the offing for four years and runs parallel to wider government reform towards possession of drugs. In 2016, a working group on alternatives to prosecution recommended that the adult caution scheme be applied to possession of all illegal drugs, but the new initiative is confined to cannabis.

It’s a step in the right direction. Criminalising possession of a small amount of cannabis in today’s world serves no purpose. 

Eventually, there is no doubt but that the scheme will be extended to include other drugs. But changing attitudes forged over decades in this sector takes place at a snail’s pace.

Interestingly, the small but significant shift in police policy here follows much bigger moves in the USA which occurred on November 3. On the same day as the presidential election, a number of states had ballots on the legalising of cannabis.

Four states, New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana all voted to legalise. This brings to 15 the number of states in the USA where the drug is now legal and 18 in which cannabis can be used for medicinal purposes.

Oregan went one further, decriminalised small amounts of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. 

Possession of those drugs will now attract a fine similar to that accruing for a speeding ticket. The state also made provision in the vote to fund drug addiction treatment from a sales tax on cannabis.

Speaking a few days after the election, the executive director of the advocacy group, Drug Policy Alliance, described the results across the country as incredible.

“This is like taking a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war,” she said.

The significance of the result should not be lost in this country. In the last 40 years or so, Ireland has usually followed the USA in its approach to illegal drugs.

So it went when the issue was narrowly viewed as exclusively a criminal justice matter requiring a major punitive response. This began with the USA’s War On Drugs, first initiated in the 1970s.

One early highpoint in this respect was the appointment of Elvis Presley as a special ambassador on the war. The singer posed in the Oval Office of the White House with then-incumbent Richard Nixon for what subsequently became a famous photograph. 

The hound dog is quite obviously bug-eyed on a concoction of prescription drugs as he accepts his status as a poster boy to fight off the evils of smoking a joint.

There is food for thought in the Portuguese experience. The approach has not turned the country into a nation of potheads. Neither has it led to the country being considered as a haven of drug use.

The war on drugs was seriously ramped up in the 1980s when states across the USA introduced mandatory minimum prison sentences for offenders caught in possession. 

These sentences were graded according to the amounts of drugs found but from a very low amount, there was a mandatory sentence from which a judge could not resile, irrespective of the circumstances. The regime was designed to demonstrate to middle America that the authorities were implementing a zero-tolerance for drug use.

The outcome was depressingly predictable. US prisons filled up with small-time criminals as the big boys merely rearranged how they did business. By the end of the century, states feeling the heft of the ballooning cost of mass imprisonment began to repeal the laws. It simply wasn’t working.

Despite that, there were already moves afoot in this country to follow suit. Mandatory Minimum Sentences were introduced for possession of drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1999. Anybody caught in possession of drugs worth in excess of €13,000 would be sent to prison for 10 years.

Criminalising possession of a small amount of cannabis in today’s world serves no purpose other than to take a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war.

Criminalising possession of a small amount of cannabis in today’s world serves no purpose other than to take a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war.

The only problem was the constitution didn’t allow judges' hands to be tied in this manner so effectively it was a presumptive rather than mandatory sentence. The outcome was that many judges ignored the law on the basis that it was abhorrent to any notion of natural justice. This in turn led to a major conflict between judges and politicians.

The regime also provided numerous politicians with a soundbite any time any form of crime became a public controversy. It was de riguer for politicians to issue righteous statements that the only way to tackle the crime in the spotlight was to introduce mandatory minimum sentences. That this policy was redundant was simply ignored. It sounded the business, and that was all that mattered.

In 2013, the Law Reform Commission recommended an end to mandatory minimum sentences but the body politic has been slow to react for fear of appearing soft on crime. All of which shows where a misplaced attitude to illegal drugs on the far side of the Atlantic led.

Now the Yanks have turned the truck around and are moving in a different direction. After decades spent pursuing redundant policies, there is a slow dawning that a different approach is required. 

There is a growing acceptance that total prohibition is a boon for serious criminals and presents further grief to those who suffer addiction. 

How long before the new attitudes land on these shores leading to further policy changes here?

One example of an enlightened approach is Portugal. In 2001, drugs were decriminalised, effectively changing possession from a criminal to a civil matter. 

Cultivating or selling drugs remained illegal, but anybody in possession for personal use was dealt with through a fine, and a concerted approach to treatment for those deemed to require it.

One outcome has been a nearly 50% decrease in convictions and imprisonments for drug offences, including trafficking, between 2001 and 2015.

There is food for thought in the Portuguese experience. The approach has not turned the country into a nation of potheads. Neither has it led to the country being considered as a haven of drug use.

In Holland, the laws are more liberal, particularly in relation to cannabis, but there is more than one way to approach the problem than having a simple market free-for-all.

What is required is grown up thinking that is informed not by prejudices and attitudes prevalent over the last four or five decades. 

The new initiative by An Garda Síochána is a welcome start, but there is a fair distance to go yet. 

Happy New Year, and after the year that’s just been put down, let’s hope it’s a good one.

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