Where Next For Irish Drug Policy?

Minister for Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD

2015 has arguably been one of the most eventful years for drug policy reform in Ireland. As the year ends Ireland looks set to slowly begin the shift away from outright drug prohibition.

While any shift in policy is likely to be limited, it is perhaps the beginning of treating drug usage as a medical rather than judicial concern.

This shift in policy might just be natural progression, we have seen Ireland change views in other areas such as gay marriage.

A number of factors are key, if not the cause of this shift.

The appointment of Aodhán Ó Ríordáin as Minister for Drugs Strategy is part of the catalyst for this shift. He has opened the debate around decriminalisation, medically supervised injection centres and much more.

Also of note is that earlier this year Health Minister Leo Varadkar stated he would be in favour of a move towards decriminalisation

The legal fiasco earlier this year which saw some drugs temporarily legalised is also significant. This forced the government to consider if any other loopholes exist.

The Justice Committee’s visit to Portugal to review their drug policy is also a factor. Their official report is full of praise for the Portuguese model

The Justice Committee also sought submissions from the public on drug policy. Only one of the 87 submissions received was opposed to decriminalisation.

More recently the Justice Committee invited activists in before them to hear their views. After these hearings it was reported that the Committee is to recommend limited drug decriminalisation

The issue of heroin use on our streets, or at least concerns over its public visibility, has increased the likelihood Ireland will open a medically supervised injection centre

Earlier this week the ‘What’s in the Pill’ campaign was launched by various individuals including Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Student Welfare Officers from UCD, TCD, and DIT and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

The campaign provides harm reduction information, and while not condoning the use of illegal substances it does offer advice on how to partake safely.

Elsewhere this week Aodhán Ó Ríordáin stated that the mantra of ‘Just Say No’ to drugs does not resonate with young people

All these events and much more have lead Ireland to this point where it looks set for change.

A new Misuse of Drugs Act is expected shortly, while the National Drugs Strategy is up for renewal.

Another area of legal change which could affect drug users is the Spent Convictions Bill which is currently under consideration.

Ireland is the only EU country not to have such laws, which is also known as ‘second chance’ leglisation. It allows for the expungement of certain criminal convictions after a set time.

The elephant in the room however is the looming elections. There is relatively little time left for parliamentary work, so concerns these plans may not happen are well founded.

Groups like Help Not Harm plan to lobby politicians and political parties ahead of the election. One aim is to get political parties to commit to putting drug policy reform on their manifesto.

Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin faces a challenge to be re-elected, while his party (Labour) are also unlikely to be returned to government.

Fine Gael look set to be returned to power and surprisingly many key members of its party now seemingly favour change.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar and the Justice Committee chairman David Stanton are two key figures who have publicly backed a change in policy.

This is not a guarantee the party will back any progressive change after the elections, but its certainly a change in the general tone.

Few perhaps could have expected such an eventful year back in January. Where Ireland goes from now remains to be seen.

A number longtime and prominent reform activists have told me this is the first time we are engaging properly on a debate around decriminalisation.

The coming months should provide a clearer picture on where policy is heading as  plans for the new Misuse of Drugs Act and National Drugs Strategy will become known.


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