This week a delegation from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality travelled to Portugal to learn about its drugs policy, and to assess the impact of the changes that were implemented over a decade ago.
The delegation also visited the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which this week launched its 2015 report
The following politicians makeup the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality:
Niall Collins (FF)
Alan Farrell (FG)
Anne Ferris (LAB) [Vice-Chairman]
Seán Kenny (LAB)
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn (SF)
Gabrielle McFadden (FG)
Finian McGrath (IND)
Fergus O’Dowd (FG)
David Stanton (FG) [Chairman]
Ivana Bacik (LAB)
Martin Conway (FG)
Tony Mulcahy (FG)
Rónán Mullen (IND)
Denis O’Donovan (FF)
Katherine Zappone (IND)
However only four of the committee members travelled to Lisbon during the week to report back and these were:
Fine Gael TD’s David Stanton and Alan Farrell
Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway
Independent TD Finian McGrath
It is interesting to see such a heavy Fine Gael presence on the delegation, although perhaps not unsurprising. One hopes that this might lead to those in attendance reporting back positively to their party colleagues.
Their presence might be an indication of Fine Gael’s determination to set drug policy ahead of the unveiling of the next National Drugs Strategy. Which may or may not be good thing.
The following was the itinerary for their three day visit to Portugal:
Wednesday – June 3rd
16:00 : Meeting with Director of General-Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies
Thursday – June 4th
10:00: Launch of the EMCDDA 2015 European Report on Drugs
11:30: Meeting with EMCDDA Experts
14:00: Meeting with the Portuguese Parliamentary Committee on Health
* A visit to Taipas Withdrawal Unit may have also taken place
Friday – June 5th
09:30: Meeting with Director of EMCDDA
11:00: Meeting with National Deputy Director of the Criminal Police
But what is the Portuguese model?
Since 2001 a person is allowed to carry up to 10 days worth of drugs on them, while there is also a broader emphasis on harm reduction policies.
People found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.
One of the key figures the Irish delegates met this week is Dr. Joao Goulao, who played a central role in shifting Portuguese drugs policy towards the current model.
I met and interviewed Dr. Joao Goulao in Vienna a number of years back for SSDP Ireland. For whom he also did a nationwide tour of Ireland last year, alongside Marc and Jodie Emery
Dr. Goulao is a wonderfully insightful man and he is concise and clear with his message. I am hopeful the delegation will have learned something new from their meeting with him.
Speaking to the media in the aftermath of their visit the committee’s chairman David Stanton TD said the Portuguese model “seemed to be quite effective” and that the delegates were open to seeing a discussion on the matter take place here.
The results of the trip will be added to the committee’s report on organised crime which is to be sent to the Department of Justice in the coming weeks.
So what can the Irish delegation that visited Portugal have learned from the drug model they were exposed to?
Much of the evidence to date suggests that there has been a number of stark improvements for both drug users and the general population in Portugal.
Although how much of this is solely down to drug policy and not inclusive of other factors is the subject of some discourse.
Numerous reports and studies have shown a number of positives have emerged from tacking drugs with harm reduction policies, rather than merely enforcing prohibition.
There have also been a number of positive news stories relating to the Portuguese experience which have appeared in international media outlets.
One informative report is this one from Transform which shows (using various data and graphs) a number of improvements including:
Drug use amongst 15 to 24 year olds has declined and there has also been a decline in the percentage of the population who have ever used a drug.
The report also showed that drug related deaths have also reduced significantly since the change in policy.
EMCDDA’s 2014 report shows that HIV infection rates among injection drug users have reduced at a steady pace and has halved in less then a decade.
A 2010 study by the British Journal of Criminology showed that since the change in policy there has been a dramatic decrease n imprisonment on drug-related charges.
This report also shows there has also been a surge in visits to health clinics that deal with addiction and disease.
All of these plus other reports suggest that the Portuguese model (or elements of) is having a positive effect and are worth considering.
Just this weekend it was reported in the media that Portugal has one of the lowest rates of death from drug overdoses. The country has 3 overdose deaths per million citizens, compared to the EU average of 17.3
These are just a sample of some of the positive findings since the change in policy.
To conclude, it is good to see an Oireachtas committee travel to learn about a different model. This plus the positive sentiments and proposed plans from our new Minister for Drug Strategy perhaps means Ireland is set for a new era of drug policy in Ireland.
As shown in this article, and as outlined to the travelling delegation, the Portuguese model appears to be working. Thus it might be one to consider when setting policy in the future.
With a new National Drugs Strategy to be unveiled soon, perhaps we will see if our politicians have learned anything from their trip to Portugal.
I wouldn’t hold my breathe though.