In 2000, Portugal became the first EU country to decriminalise all drugs. You read that correctly: all drugs. Including cocaine and heroin.
The statute ensured that those caught in possession of drugs for personal use would not be processed through the criminal justice system for their violation. Instead, violations of the prohibition of drugs are processed as administration offences rather than criminal ones. This change means individuals cannot be imprisoned for drug usage or possession. Drug use is treated more as a health issue than a criminal justice issue, a distinction which has the power to alter our perception of drugs – and those who use them – altogether.
Portugal has since fallen significantly below the EU average for drug-related deaths, and its proportion of prisoners sentenced for drug offences has fallen from 40% to 15%. Paired with a shift in drug education from an abstinence-based approach to one which aims at harm reduction, drug use among under-18’s has been steadily declining over the last decade.
The position of decriminalisation has been both revered and reviled across the globe, but it’s difficult to look at drug statistics in Portugal and ignore the obvious benefits the legislation has engendered.
Irish citizens and politicians alike have taken note of the impact drugs have on society and begun to push for decriminalisation, too. With Ireland seeing a 225% increase in the number of drug-related deaths over the last 25 years, the imperative to make a change looms larger than ever. Other EU countries – Switzerland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, to name a few – have seen the advantages to reevaluating their national relationship to drugs and have made the move to decriminalise. So what will it take for Ireland to do the same?
One Dublin TD and People Before Profit politician, Gino Kenny, sees a complete overhaul of drug legislation as the only way forward.
“I would be of the opinion that [drug legislation] has to be looked at holistically, and there needs to be a whole paradigm shift in relation to how we treat the issue,” said Kenny. “The demand for drugs has never been as great as it’s been in the last twenty years. Now, that tells you something… and that’s in an environment where all these drugs are illegal.”
Kenny came to the conclusion years ago that the present policies around illicit drugs in Ireland do not work, and get nowhere near solving the problem of how people get involved with drugs in the first place.
Current drug laws in Ireland
The Misuse of Drugs Act is the primary legislation dictating drug offences since 1977. The main offences outlined are to do with drug possession and possession with the intent to sell, and the bill also lists the substances to which the legislation applies. Hint: it’s all of them. Even possession of cannabis is a punishable offence that could land someone in prison. But legal punishment is also dependent on the quantity that you are caught with, and often the first offence, if the court finds that the drug possession is only for personal use, will just result in a fine.
“I think criminalising people for cannabis use is a waste of time,” Kenny said.
The second country after Malta to do so, Germany has recently set out plans to legalise recreational cannabis in a move that Kenny believes could start a domino effect across Europe. It would be the country with the largest population in the world to legalise the sale of cannabis, according to Constantin von der Groeben, who manages a local grower in Germany.
Kenny has similarly big hopes for Ireland’s treatment of cannabis legislation.
His proposed Cannabis Regulation and Control Bill would allow the state to control the production and distribution of legal cannabis, thereby diminishing the imperative to buy from black market sources. Kenny suggests the state could provide a cannabis licence to farmers and producers to grow the substance according to health standards, and coffee shops and dispensaries then would be given licence to sell it.
“What’s happening with cannabis is, whether it’s legal or not, people will get it somehow. That kind of throws up a question: making it illegal, does that make it safer? And it doesn’t,” Kenny said.
It’s not just cannabis. With the black market in control of illicit drug production, all the revenue coming from drug purchases is cycled back into criminality. Kenny argues that, going beyond decriminalisation, bringing control of drug production into the hands of the state would reduce black market demand. Although there will always be a black market for drugs, particularly cannabis, regulation would cause a paradigm shift that will take that revenue away from criminality. This would also make the drugs safer to consume, as their production would be regulated for quality.
Kenny is not alone in pushing for the decriminalisation of drugs in Ireland. Other TDs like Lynn Ruane and Eileen Flynn have also endorsed the position to decriminalise, not to mention an increasingly vocal civilian contingent seeking to do away with the prohibition laws.
Citizens for decriminalisation
Irish youth workers have come together in an effort to go beyond decriminalisation and see effective drug regulation in Ireland, writing in an open letter criticising the current prohibition: “Decriminalisation of all drug possession and cultivation for personal use is an important first step, but it will still leave the supply of drugs in the control of criminal gangs, and young people will still be at risk using unknown, unregulated substances.”
They also cite a statistic which states that 70% of Ireland’s prison population reported having drug addiction issues. The problem of drug abuse often stems from underlying socio-economic inequality, which puts those in poverty at a far greater risk of addiction. The solution to such an issue is not, and has never been, increased restriction and prohibition.
And Irish youth workers aren’t the only ones prodding the government for changes to drug legislation. There is a growing likelihood of a Citizens’ Assembly on drug laws taking place this year, much delayed as the three coalition parties of the Irish government committed back in 2020 to holding such an assembly.
Citizens’ Assembly is a campaign group that consists of 100 members, one of whom is chairperson and the other 99 being citizens entitled to vote in a referendum. The group has been called by the Oireachtas to make recommendations and bring forward proposals in regards to issues like gender equality and domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence. Citizens’ assemblies have held more and more sway in Irish politics throughout the past several years, playing a key role in the run-up to the 2018 referendum on Ireland’s abortion ban.
The community-based approach to tackling drug issues in Ireland might well prove to be the best way forward. While there is no singular solution to drug abuse, hearing from the communities most affected by the current criminalising legislation and prohibition could be pivotal in finally seeing a change.
“It’s not a complete panacea,” said Kenny. “People will always use drugs, and it can be very ugly at times. But I think, regardless of how ugly it is, [the government] is better off embracing it rather than pushing it away and leaving it up to others.”