How different would the headlines of the newspapers be if they simply reflected the truth of the exercise the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality have recently undertaken? Worldwide headlines have been screaming that Ireland intends to decriminalise the possession of drugs. Congratulations have been pouring in from all kinds of people and organisations both at home and abroad. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD is seeing his public profile escalating enormously, especially amongst the young, no such thing as bad publicity. Everyone's winning, right? Right? Well, and here's a spoiler alert, in short, no. Everybody is not winning. This report has nothing to do with cannabis or cannabis users.
November 5th 2015 saw the release, by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of a report: Report of the Committee on a Harm Reducing and Rehabilitative approach to possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. This can be seen here. The Committee were considering possible responses to gangland crime and violence in parts of Dublin. They discovered two things:
1: There was no Minister of State with special cross-departmental responsibility for Drugs and Alcohol Policy. This was rectified and Minister for State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was given the responsibility for this function on 15th June 2015.
2: That there appeared to be a link between organised and violent crime and the sale, supply and use of drugs. In fact, drugs appeared to be the main source of income for these Dublin-based organised crime groups. In response to this the Committee decided to send a delegation to visit the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Portugal and to engage with Portuguese authorities on their approach to drug addiction adopted there in 2001. On their return to Ireland the delegation proposed that the Committee investigate the adoption of a similar model to the Portuguese framework.
So, boiled down, what have we got? We've got a Committee that was looking into Dublin gangland criminal behaviour and violence. They were told that a lot of these problems concerned the sale, supply and use of the drugs that comprised their largest source of income. Portugal had done something to try and disconnect violent crime from drugs so they sent a small party to find out what they'd done. They found that Portuguese authorities had instigated a system whereby socially problematic drug users would no longer be assigned to the Justice Department for punitive measures but would first, within 72hrs of being apprehended by a law enforcement official, have to go before a Commission for Addiction Dissuasion. They came away from this fact-finding mission with some excellent points of view concerning the burden of criminal conviction on the young, the decrease in HIV/AIDS cases, (...'dropped dramatically'), and that the number of crimes directly related to drug addiction had decreased. What they didn't bring back was the concept of 'socially problematic drug users' and without this concept underpinning the whole we have a very different recommendation than that which is gracing the front pages, op-eds and comment sections of the press both traditional and digital.
Nowhere in this report are the words 'decriminalisation' or 'legalisation' used. At the launch of the report, which I attended as a NORML Ireland representative, the Chairman of the Delegation repeatedly warned not to use the terms 'decriminalisation' or 'legalisation' as they were meaningless in the context of this report. People reading the papers and seeing the threshhold allowances that are 'allowed' in Portugal, thinking that they're going to be OK carrying 25g of herbal cannabis for personal use are going to be in for an almighty shock - not least because the report appears to recommend the prosecution of people carrying more than an undefined 'small' amount as a dealer. My in-box was full this morning with messages from people saying, 'Can I come out now?' and the answer is, for your own safety, a resounding NO.
This is how it appears to me - what this report is actually aiming for. The present Minister of State for New Communities, Culture, Equality and Drugs Strategy wants heroin addicts and other problematic drug users off the streets of Dublin where they represent an eyesore, a potential public health menace, a perceived criminal atmosphere and a visible reminder of the failure of the State to provide for some of it's sickest inhabitants. He's a young minister with, presumably, a long career in politics to look forward to, he's not sure he will survive the next election cycle so he wants to leave a legacy behind him of supervised injection sites where problematic drug users will have access to clean needles, medical expertise, education and counseling. What he definitely does NOT want are gardaí standing outside the supervised injection sites saying, 'You're nicked, you're nicked, where did you get this? Who did this come from? Etc', and to this end he does want those gardaí to have to say, 'You've got 72 hours to report to a Commission for Addiction Dissuasion, now, get inside and shoot up because I'm not allowed to take your drugs off you unless you've got loads, or less than loads, or something'.
So. To go through the basics of the report:
1: Small amounts of prohibited drugs - a civil/administrative option to be offered rather than the usual draconian criminal justice response.
2: An Garda Síochána to have sole responsibility as to whether or not this civil/administrative option is offered.
3: If An Garda Síochána decide you merit the offer of the civil/administrative option that the infrastructure concerning harm reduction and rehabilitation be properly resourced and fit for purpose.
4: That users of the civil/administrative option be treated like unwell human beings and citizens rather than criminals and the scum of society.
5: Education, education, education for those that need it and those that might need it.
6: I'll just put this up verbatim because no matter how many times I read it I can't quite grasp a meaning. 'The Committee recommends that research be undertaken to ensure that the adoption of any alternative approach be appropriate in an Irish context' << I kinda, kinda, get it.
7: Tucked away right at the end, the single most useful recommendation in the entire report '..enactment of legislation in relation to Spent Convictions be prioritised.'
One of the conclusions that the Committee arrived at was that the introduction of an appropriate harm reducing and rehabilitative approach could result in a better relationship between An Garda Síochána and the wider community. For the cannabis community nothing has changed, gardaí in Dublin might welcome this report and, potentially, the load it takes off their resources and manpower but I don't believe it will impact on the gardaí in rural communities at all. The Oireachtas Committee heard that there were on average 40 arrests per day linked to drug possession and use. These all count as 'crimes solved' and while gardaí are arresting people for the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use they are not arresting dangerous, violent criminals operating in rural areas. Please don't get me wrong here - I have nothing but the utmost respect for those uniformed men and woman of An Garda Síochána, who police the streets every night protecting the public from people who are driven demented by overdosing on the state-sanctioned drug alcohol. These people have my unqualified admiration and support for the work that they do. What I dislike, and think that from a societal point of view is unhealthy, is the anonymous denunciations that drive plain-clothes officers to do what they do. To exercise their protected status in treating cannabis users on a par with terrorists or peadophiles. Some of these people are so morally outraged about a persons activities as a cannabis consumer that I'm surprised they aren't always off-duty with stress-related illnesses.
I raised the following points and question to the Committee; that the rural gardaí had seen great successes in apprehending herbal cannabis users and 'cottage' producers - people who aren't behaving like profit-driven criminals - they don't move house after every harvest and they don't have the coping mechanisms that career criminals have to help them get over contact with law enforcement professionals - resulting in a great shortage of herbal cannabis on the illicit market. As a result of this vacuum, hashish has appeared to fill it. Hashish is not produced in Ireland, in contrast to herbal cannabis that is. Hashish has to be smuggled into the island of Ireland and therefore gardaí are in fact facilitating the worse crime. Everybody knows that weaponry and hard drugs use these smuggling routes, with hashish usually thrown in as a makeweight. So I asked the committee, what they had brought back with them from Portugal concerning the cultivation of cannabis for personal use? And the answer was? Nothing. No, that will have to be dealt with at a later stage etc etc. Honestly, I can't say it enough, this report has nothing to do with the normalisation of marijuana laws in this country and at best can be seen as advancing the tipping point by giving members of the public the space to think about cannabis and how it might affect them or their families. As a friend of mine said, "I'd much rather find my daughter using cannabis so I could sit down and talk to her about the dangers and drawbacks of it than have to go out and pick up her drunken, comatose body after she's been sexually assaulted from some park somewhere". Amen.
Anyway, if you've read this far - thank you very much. My name is Stephen Whiteley, I live in Mayo on the West coast and am disabled. Working within the 'Rock 'n' Roll' industry for many years I now find myself surprised that something I did with no more thought than making a cup of tea should now be a source of such medical comfort to me. I will post articles on here preaching to the converted and hoping that, after you've done your own research, you'll post on and share. Please use the comments below if you've disagreements or points to raise.