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Maureen O’Sullivan a lecturer in law (Above the Bar) at NUI Galway, a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and Chairperson of the Vegetarian Society of Ireland. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh where she is doing a PhD in reform of the European patent system.


One of the unfortunate outcomes of the recent general election in Ireland was that a pioneer in drugs policy, who promised evidence-based reform, has lost his seat, meaning that the entire project is likely to be shelved. It tells us something about the need for cross-party negotiation and support on such issues so that the welfare of the entire public is paramount come election or no. Drugs permeate society at both macro and micro levels, on a spectrum from recreational use to feeding an addiction, which can sometimes lead to crime and death – either of the addict or of others. Globalisation has had a major impact on the drugs trade and in some respects it is now so vast that it has become borderless, except where countries and regions such as Mexico and Central America suffer the outcome of prohibitionist policies foisted on them by their northern neighbour that has failed to deal with its own large addiction rates. The US deals in the language of “cutting off supply” rather than addressing the question of demand. Complicity in this trade is widespread and will not abate through the use of strong-arm tactics.

It is now widely acknowledged that the so-called “War on Drugs” has failed. What is particularly tragic about this is the number of innocent people displaced, disappeared and dead in its wake, which run into hundreds of thousands in Latin America. It’s high time to reform the international regime and in doing so, pay close heed to schemes that have proved successful in a number of different respects, as examined below.

Drugs are an emotive topic and it is especially important, therefore, that our treatment of the issue be evidence-based. Headlines can create hard cases, which every lawyer knows, do not make good law. In our understanding of this issue and our conceptualisation of its attendant complexities, we need to avoid thinking in terms of there being a “them” and an “us” and instead maintain an open mind about radical reform introduced by other countries where a positive impact can be shown. An appropriate starting point would be to consider countries that have brought about a significant reduction in their deaths by overdose, such as Portugal – and crime rates, such as the city of Medellin in Colombia. In the former, decriminalisation of the possession of all drugs since 2001 has seen a significant reduction both in mortality rates from overdose and drug addiction in general. Anyone caught in possession of any drug, calculated on a quantitative basis of ten days supply or less, is referred to an administrative council made up of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker. This committee has the options of imposing a fine, referring the individual for treatment or doing nothing at all. In the majority of cases, no further action is taken. This is what Aodhán Ó Riordáin was planning to introduce in Ireland, and one of the benefits of such a scheme is that addicts are more likely to seek treatment and to engage with health professionals if the state refrains from criminalising their illness. Moreover, other social ills such as prostitution may be reduced if addicts no longer sell sex in order to finance their addiction, which could represent a significant saving for the health service. Cases where no further action is taken generally indicate either that a fine would impose undue hardship and perhaps be paid from the proceeds of crime or that the consumption was not serious enough to justify any intervention. The supply of drugs continues to be an offence and is also quantified as constituting more than 10 days’ supply of drugs.

Portugal has decriminalised rather than legalised drugs. At present, legalisation is not possible due to a number of UN treaties that are in place. These will be debated at a conference on the theme later this year and there is significant international pressure to abandon the policies that have wreaked havoc on many supplier nations. The existing policies that fan out from the UN legislation have been disastrous. They have not achieved their aim of reducing the drugs trade. In fact, it has flourished during prohibition. It is so lucrative that in countries whose citizens have little hope of gainful employment, some will inevitably become involved in cartel activity because not only are there few well-paid jobs, but there is an absence of the safety net of social welfare, meaning that the poor live in utter desperation. Inevitably, one’s life becomes enmeshed in violence and this radiates outward, also creating victims among those inadvertently caught up in this activity. Shifting the focus to dealing with and treating the demand for these substances may reduce supply – where demand falls, fewer drugs will be required. Countries such as Uruguay have legalised the supply as well as possession of cannabis simply because prohibition, in this matter, does not appear to foster the intended outcome of policies put in place.

The Colombian city of Medellin, once the murder capital of the world, has become remarkably safe in recent years and the homicide rate is now lower than it was 30 years ago before it was gripped by local cartel activity. A series of innovative mayors have reformed the city by a number of different means including introducing a metro system and installing outdoor escalators so that residents at the outer reaches of the city could access institutions rapidly in this mountainous terrain. A large chunk of the budget has been invested in educational programmes and participatory devices such as budgeting have been introduced to enhance democracy and citizen engagement. A beautification of the city centre was embarked upon, assisted by the permanent exhibition of major artworks by native sculptor and painter, Fernando Botero. This has made the city centre an attractive place to visit and the inclusion of the economically disadvantaged has benefited the entire city, contributing to the reduction in crime.

A further feature of the scheme that Ó Riordáin planned to introduce was the setting up of drugs consumption rooms or DRCs. These are purpose-built facilities where heroin addicts can avail of needle exchanges and medically-supervised drug consumption so that overdose is avoided. Patrons can also engage with the health service and seek treatment for their addiction. Needle exchange tends to have a positive effect on reducing blood-transmitted disease and moreover, if condoms are also distributed at these centres, sexually transmitted infections can be reduced.

Inaction or punitive tactics will not make the problem go away. Drug use is widespread and does not always lead to addiction. Society needs to be informed about the fact and to adopt a mature policy towards selecting schemes in which all citizens are treated with compassion. It also must eschew the pursuit of policies which do not work. It’s high time for the UN to review these treaties with substantial informed civil society involvement and one wonders in time whether any responsibility will be taken by anyone for the truly disastrous consequences of the “War on Drugs” on a global scale.

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