Anthony Fay: Government passes parcel to Citizens' Assembly to consider drugs use policy 

Any plan to legalise drugs must be done in the context of wider societal reform
Anthony Fay: Government passes parcel to Citizens' Assembly to consider drugs use policy 

Proponents and lobbyists will advocate that cannabis is safer than alcohol and as often argued in the US, a better alternative to the opiate crisis. Picture: PA Wire

The Government has passed the parcel to the Citizens' Assembly to consider drugs use under the Our Shared Future' Programme. This parcel won’t be vacuum packed with illicit substances but instead with terms of reference, potentially to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. 

The approach implicitly recognises that drug use is ubiquitous in Ireland. The distinct smell of cannabis, for example, is no stranger on a summer’s evening in a park, at a barbecue or concert.

Proponents and lobbyists will advocate that cannabis is safer than alcohol and as often argued in the US, a better alternative to the opiate crisis. Casual users are not abusers, legalisation frees up the criminal justice system, neutralises drug cartels, and is consistent with the Portuguese harm-reduction model.

Opponents cite the harmful effects on physical and mental health, financial exploitation, the gateway drug and floodgate arguments. The “legalise the plant” campaign is further masquerading as a social justice issue compounded with irresponsible political debate.

Cogent arguments on both sides but the matter is further complicated with the dark web and a new generation of street drugs. This includes more potent cannabis with greater Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) strength which is the main psychoactive component. Synthetic cannabinoids now on the scene include 'spice', 'wedding cake' and 'genie' which have unknown and unpredictable side effects.

A criminal conviction for drug possession also causes irreparable damage —particularly for a young person in terms of their life chances. A number of Irish judges have been compassionate applying the probation act or striking out prosecutions subject to charitable donations.

My own experiences are of legally representing clients who have been involuntarily detained in psychiatric wards under the Mental Health Act. Patients regularly present with drug-induced psychosis, often from poly substance abuse since their teenage years. Some readers will take issue with a paternalistic approach but my filing cabinets contain a wasteland of young talented people's lives ruined. 

A recent report in the Irish Medical Journal noted a 185% increase in cannabis-related admissions to psychiatric hospitals from 2008-2016. This is regretfully consistent with my own day-to-day experience. The normalisation of drug use has further sent out the wrong message including recent client feedback — “sure, cannabis is safe, look at countries like Canada and Uruguay where it has been legalised”.

'The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The World Drug Report 2019' illustrates that decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis has been counter-productive. 

The report noted in Canada that cannabis use increased by 40% between 2013 and 2017. The Uruguayan Drug Observatory showed an estimated annual prevalence of cannabis use of 9.3% in 2014 which had increased to 15% by 2017.

Way Forward 

The Irish Government in August 2019 proposed a health diversion approach, from where on the first occasion the Garda can refer a person on a mandatory basis to the HSE for health screening and brief intervention. 

On the second occasion, the Garda will have the discretion to issue an adult caution (which currently doesn’t apply to The Misuse of Drugs Acts). Extra funding will be needed. 

There are already serious capacity issues within our health system bravely firefighting Covid-19 to take on these additional responsibilities. The inadequate treatment for people suffering with a dual diagnosis of a mental illness and comorbid substance addiction also needs to be urgently tackled.

The Drugs Treatment Court (DTC) should be placed on a statutory footing after nearly 20 years operating on a pilot scheme. It ought to be given greater financial resources, expanded outside of Dublin and adopt some of the structures used by the Opiate Courts in Buffalo, USA.

Whatever route the 2020 Dáil charts, illicit drug consumption is now more pervasive than traditional use within the counterculture movement. A number of western societies tacitly accept that the war on drugs cannot be won, it is instead now about containment. 

Previous strategies, no matter how well-intentioned, can backfire. Some of the role models that Nancy Reagan used in her 1980s anti-drugs campaign ironically ended up in rehab themselves. 

I am therefore not overly confident of recent plans, in the absence of wider societal reform of combating poverty, social exclusion and homelessness. This must be done in tandem with effective drug rehabilitation, greater public awareness campaigns and community engagement programmes. 

The above health diversion policy could otherwise just be a hall pass for the middle and upper classes to avoid a criminal record.

 Anthony Fay is a Dublin-based solicitor

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