Recently the Sunday Independent reported that 186,794 people were arrested for drug offences between 2004 and 2014. Also revealed was that almost 75% (138,032) of these arrests were offences deemed as ‘possession of drugs for personal use’.
This means that around 14,000 people each year, almost 40 people every day, were arrested for personal possession between 2004 and 2014.
While many activists were aware of these figures, which are available via the Central Statistics Office, it is likely the wider public were not aware of the numbers.
This recent Sunday Independent article was likely a revelation to individuals about the extent of the issue. Many of its readers were perhaps unaware that three out of every four drug arrests is for personal possession.
While many of the people arrested don’t receive a prison sentence, they may still get a criminal record. As the article states these people are then “automatically deemed criminals” and “have their criminal record catalogued on the Garda Pulse database”.
Also reported is that following a conviction there can be problems for an individual seeking employment within Ireland and the EU, and in most non-EU states. There may also be travel restrictions for an individual following a conviction.
The article also states that only a small number of convictions are for importation and that “Garda and Customs fail to make any significant impact on major traffickers”.
The fact that 75% of the arrests are for personal possession, and that authorities can do little to tackle importation, shows that it is the average cannabis user ending up in court, and not the criminal masterminds.
When it comes to cannabis cultivation, and as I blogged previously, it is usually non-nationals, often of Asian descent, who end up in jail for growing. Tragically many appear to be the victims of trafficking who are forced into cultivating cannabis by criminal gangs
So where next for Ireland?
While a number of police forces in the UK have stated they will allow minor cannabis offences go unpunished, it has been reported there are no plans for gardai to turn a blind eye here
The Sunday Independent article highlighted the views expressed recently by the Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
Speaking in the Seanad in earlier this year he said “A number of senators called for a more health focused, addiction focused approach rather than a criminal justice one to deal with the drugs crisis. My own instincts are in that direction too.”
However he was quick to add that any such move would require “thought and consideration and public buy in” were it to be successful.
Although no mention of him in the Sunday Independent article, it is worth noting that our new Minister for Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has also made a number of positive statements recently regarding drug policy reform.
Recently an Oireachtas Committee travelled to Portugal and reported back on the results of decriminalisation. You can learn more about the report which was broadly positive here
Meanwhile the government sought submissions from the public regarding changes in drug policy. The closing date was August 7th, and there should be more to report on the matter shortly.
Perhaps these moves are signs that Ireland is moving towards a drugs policy which no longer criminalises people for personal possession offences.
The Help Not Harm campaign which was recently launched will seek to put the issue of drug decriminalisation on the agenda ahead of the next elections.
While significant policy change maybe someway off, it is great to see the debate has progressed in recent months. The next year, both ahead of and after the elections, are set to be interesting times.
Hopefully the issue of personal possession is one which will be addressed, or we will continue to pointlessly arrest thousands each year.