Around three weeks ago the news broke that Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who is a Labour TD for Dublin North-Central, had been appointed the new Minister for Drugs Strategy
The role of Minister for Drugs Strategy had been vacant for 10 months following the July 2014 cabinet reshuffle. It appeared that Minister for Health Leo Varadkar was set to oversee drug policy however the government has decided to give the position to Ó Ríordáin.
Ó Ríordáin is also the current Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality, so he adds this drugs strategy brief to his portfolio.
Some have argued this is a political appointment in order to boost Ó Ríordáin’s profile ahead of what is set to be a difficult general election for the Labour party.
Given he is already overseeing a number of portfolios there is an argument to be made that someone able to devote 100% of their time to the role should have been appointed.
However perhaps we should save judgement until Ó Ríordáin has completed his tenure and we can examine the results.
In his other roles Ó Ríordáin is attempting to reform the dreadful system of direct provision in the country. However he has faced criticism on various fronts over the proposed reform (or lack thereof) and seen resignations following the establishment of a working group
Ó Ríordáin since taking up his new role as Minister for Drugs Strategy has been vocal on a number of issues and has made a number of insightful media appearances.
Just a few days into the position and there were suggestions that the state would consider the possibility of decriminalising cannabis
Ó Ríordáin said “I believe someone who has an addiction issue should be dealt with through the health system and not the criminal justice system.”
How serious such a statement is remains to be seen. I would believe for a variety of reasons, mostly political, decriminalisation won’t happen under this government.
However this statement and others since from Ó Ríordáin gives one some optimism for the long-term future of drug policy, as its a notable change in tone.
Of course when it comes to these all of these statements one must keep in mind that there is an election due in the next ten months or so. Given Labour’s position, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that Ó Ríordáin like many of his colleagues will fail to be returned to the next Dáil
How much an impact Ó Ríordáin can have in ten months remains to be seen. However the recent press stories in favour of reform in a number of areas have been a breath of fresh air at least
One also needs to keep in mind the power balance that exists within the current government. Labour is the junior partner and thus ultimately Fine Gael will largely have the final say on matters.
Also worth considering is that Fine Gael are likely to be more conservative on the moves suggested by Ó Ríordáin. Such calls for reforms from a Labour TD are hardly groundbreaking.
Since taking up his new role Ó Ríordáin has made a number of statements relating to various areas of drug policy.
The new minister revealed he hopes to change the relevant laws before the end of the year in order to establish medically supervised injection rooms for addicts
Ó Ríordáin said “I think, having people injecting in side alleys, in unsupervised fashion, is not good for the addict, it’s not good for the city, it’s not good for anybody. So, I don’t think it is too much of an ask to find legislative ways of changing that.”
This would certainly be a step forward and was welcomed by various groups. The move was described as “brave and bold” by the Ana Liffey Drug Project
On a related topic Ó Ríordáin stated last week that he felt methadone maintenance was “not working” for a number of drug addicts. He is said to be currently considering a review of the strategy in relation to methadone
Given the numbers on the drug, 10,000 or so, it is necessary that action is taken if its felt by the experts in the field that methadone is not working. Hopefully his review of strategy will hear from various groups and lead to policy that reduces risks for users.
Last week speaking at an event Ó Ríordáin also claimed that when it comes to the drugs issue as a whole that some people “need to grow up”
What he means exactly is open to interpretation. Some prohibitionists might take offense, while reform activists might see it as a positive statement in light of his other comments.
Elsewhere, amid calls that the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) should fund Garda in the ightagainst major crime Ó Ríordáin said he would not oppose a bill on the matter and that a review is currently underway
Some might argue this could potentially pave the way to a situation like in the US where law enforcement agencies are funded by the assets they seize.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is open to debate. Some critics feel it leads enforcement agencies to act in a profit driven manner.
Since taking the role Ó Ríordáin has performed a number of media appearances including on RTE’s Saturday Night Show which achieved notoriety when he was asked to remove his marriage referendum Yes pin
The 20 minute interview which can be seen here provides further insight into what Ó Ríordáin wishes to bring to the role as Minister for Drugs Strategy.
Perhaps his biggest task is the fact the current National Drugs Strategy (2007 – 2016) is set to expire next year, so it will be up to Ó Ríordáin along with his cabinet colleagues to unveil another long term plan.
One might hope it will be a breathe of fresh air in comparison to older strategies and that the rhetoric of late will be placed in legislation.
It’s worth adding that journalist Colette Browne, who has written positively about drug reform previously, was quick to call Ó Ríordáin and others out. In an article she declared that TDs who brag about past drug use need to back law reform
One must commend her for making such a statement as there is often hypocrisy shown by such politicians when it matters.
For too long there has been this token gesture from some politicians where they do an interview, perhaps in Hot Press magazine, and mention experimentation with drugs, and sometimes even suggest reform might be a good idea.
Yet when a vote, or the debate arises in a more formal matter, such views on drug use and reform are nowhere to be found.
Hopefully we will look back on Ó Ríordáin’s tenure in a positive fashion. Rhetorically he has started well, so lets see how he does legislatively.
Forgive me for the occasional pessimism that appears throughout this article. As someone who studied politics and history, and with an interest in drug policy, I think past experiences provides insight into what is likely to happen next.
However I really hope I am wrong and that the proposed changes come to fruition. I wish Aodhán Ó Ríordáin the best of luck in his role,