Last night I attended an event organised by the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign. CityWide is a national network of community activists and community organisations that are involved in responding to Ireland’s drugs crisis.
The event was entitled “A discussion with Sir Richard Branson on the future of the War on Drugs” and was moderated by RTE journalist Keelin Shanley.
Participating in the discussion were:
Sir Richard Branson – Founder of the Virgin Group and Commissioner with the Global Commission on Drug Policy
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD – Minister of State with responsibility for National Drugs Strategy
Bernie McDonnell – Director of Services for Community Awareness of Drugs
Fr. Peter McVerry – Social Justice Campaigner
First up was a screening of ‘Breaking The Taboo‘. This is a documentary I have seen previously, but I enjoyed watching again nonetheless.
Breaking The Taboo looks at the history of the ‘War On Drugs’ and features interviews with former Presidents and other leaders of states. It also looks at the establishment of the Global Commission on Drug Policy
The screening, which was received positively by the audience, was followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A session.
I did my best to scribble down notes and take exact quotes. So here is just a taster of what was said during the discussion.
The discussion started with Keelin Shanley asking Richard Branson why he got involved with Global Commission On Drug Policy?
Branson said that he was asked by Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazilian President from 1995- 2003) to get involved with the campaign.
Talking about his experience with the campaign he stated that “the more we look, the more we realise something needs to be done” and later he added “I hate to see year by year countries continue with a failed approach”
When asked about what type of policy he favours Branson stated that “different states need to try different approaches”
The first question Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was asked by the moderator was had it been difficult to speak out on the matter considering it is not politically popular to do so?
He said he hasn’t faced a “huge amount of opposition” but added that “the language you use is important” and he gave examples of when he uses the word decriminalisation only for it to be reported later as legalisation by the media.
Addressing the wider debate he said that “the debate has been framed in a dishonest way” and that “we have dehumanised people with genuine medical needs”
He stated we have a “victim blaming culture” towards drugs users, and that a change in the public attitude is as much needed as legislative change is.
When addressing treatment services Ó Ríordáin stated he was “horrified at the treatment of people in recovery”. Ó Ríordáin gave examples of individuals having to commute many miles daily in order to seek out the appropriate services.
A number of audience members directly affected by addiction later echoed this sentiment during the Q&A.
When addressing the political nature of things interestingly he stated that ahead of the elections the issue of decriminalisation “should be on party manifestos”.
Next to speak was Bernie McDonnell, who is the director of services for Community Awareness of Drugs, and who was the only dissenting voice on the panel.
She started by saying that “the commission should be commended” but that her organisation is “opposed to decriminalisation”
She expressed her concern that with decriminalisation the perception of harms associated with drugs (specifically cannabis) “would be diminished”.
Bernie McDonnel also argued that “drug use and problematic use would increase” and that we need a “smarter fight” to tackle drugs but “not by relaxing the laws”
Next up was Fr. Peter McVerry who stated there was “ignornace amongst the public” when it comes to the matter of drugs. He suggested that much of the debate “is shaped by two contexts” and these are “fear and morality”
He argued that “decriminalisation saves money” and that these savings instead “could be invested in treatment services”
He was critical of the current treatments available and said that in parts of the country there are “12 month waiting lists” to avail of treatment.
He argued that we only have a “small window of opportunity” to assist drug users, and that the Portuguse model might be more beneficial, rather than criminalisation.
He suggested that prohibition had failed and that there are a “far greater range of drugs available” under than before.
Next up was the Q&A session which was brief but interesting.
I asked Aodhán Ó Ríordáin two questions, although I started by cheekily (and politely) suggesting to the moderator, RTE’s Keelin Shanley, that she gets her bosses to show Breaking The Taboo.
The first question I asked was if there will be legalisative change within the current dail term?
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin stated there will be a new Misuse Of Drugs Act this year and that “within this act he can perhaps establish a safe injection centre”
This new act he later confirmed to me is partly related to the legal debacle earlier this year which saw some drugs temporailiy legalised
The second question I asked was whether the current government was working on the next National Drugs Strategy?
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin stated “he has the responsibility” and that it will be enacted before the end of 2016.
I got to speak to Minister Ó Ríordáin following the event and I inquired further about the new National Drugs Strategy. He said it hasn’t been fully worked out yet, but that they will be accepting submissions later on the matter
I also asked about Sativex and whether it is available or not. As despite claims that it was signed into law last year it is still unavailable.
He wasn’t sure what the issue is and has promised to look into it. I will be emailing him shortly to follow up on the matter.
Outside the venue a number of us got to speak to Aodhán Ó Ríordáin for a few minutes.
He offered to meet us in the future to engage on the matter further, and to participate in events with Students For Sensible Drug Policy Ireland
Amazingly as we left the venue we happened to bump into Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh who is a TD for the Dublin South–Central constituency.
We had a quick and friendly discussion with him in which he outlined that he personally favours decriminalisation, but that the party as a whole was somewhat divided on the matter.
Ó Snodaigh stated that a number of motions on the matter have failed at previous party conferences, and that although promised, a broader debate on the matter has yet to take place.
He was open to our offer to have a Sinn Féin representative at a future event, and he encouraged us to contact him further on the matter.
We took the obligatory selfie as proof of our meeting. We also took a more ‘professional’ photograph but sadly the picture quality was poor.
Overall the event was informative and a great networking event. A number of us met earlier in the day to work on a few ideas which should bear fruit. While the promise by Ó Ríordáin to engage further with us means some key events should be taking place soon,.
As always I’ll keep you informed on any future events. For now make sure you signup to the Help Not Harm campaign to get involved.