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What do Ireland’s new drug policies mean for the USA?

Perpetuating the Stigma

The chief of Ireland’s National Drugs Strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, believes the more severe drug laws have done far more harm than good and have helped perpetuate the stigma of addiction. He says the focus now needs to be on support and rehabilitation, rather than punishment:

“Too often those with drug problems suffer from stigma, due to a lack of understanding or public education about the nature of addiction,” Ó Ríordáin said. “This stigma can be compounded for those who end up with a criminal record due to possession of drugs for their own use. I am firmly of the view that there needs to be a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse if we are to break this cycle and make a serious attempt to tackle drug and alcohol addiction.”

Ó Ríordáin stressed there is a stark difference between legalization and decriminalization; while people using drugs would not be criminalized for their use, it will remain an offense to profit from the sale and/or distribution of illegal drugs. This eliminates the risk of prison time for possession among drug users, yet drug manufacturers, traffickers and dealers will still face strict criminal penalties.

Supervised Injecting Rooms

As decriminalization rolls out next year, new “injecting rooms” will be put into effect, where drug users may inject under supervised conditions. Drug injection rooms have been around for years in much of Europe; in Holland there are 31 facilities in 25 cities, and in Germany there are 24 facilities in 15 cities. Outside of Europe, Sydney and Vancouver also have supervised injecting rooms.

The evidence that these rooms have a generally positive effect is strong, and most of them have been put through the most rigorous evaluations; the Vancouver injecting room alone has been through 40 scientific research studies. The consensus is that these rooms significantly reduce public disorder and crime, and also reduce the sharing of needles and the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV. They also considerably reduce the numbers of deaths from overdosing.

Critics say that injecting rooms are morally bankrupt and socially catastrophic. After all, heroin is such a dangerous drug that each time a person injects could be their last, and providing state-sanction for this could be seen as gambling with the user’s life. No matter how many deaths could be prevented through injecting rooms, detractors believe more still could be prevented by the actual absence of heroin.

Ó Ríordáin, like most advocates of decriminalization and injecting rooms, believes the opposition to both is just another result of the stigma that still clings to addition:

“What the debate about safer injecting rooms is really about is, ‘We really don’t like these people, they are a sub-species, less than human, we should just sweep them away and it will all be better,’. If you are a citizen of the Republic, you should be treated as a citizen of the Republic. If you have illness, society needs to treat you.”

The Lost War on Drugs

Ireland’s new drug policies may be interesting, but how do they actually relate to the US? America’s failed War on Drugs has long been a catalyst for people to believe that a more tolerant approach towards drug abuse is needed. In a rousing speech last month, President Obama advised that it was time to end the war on drugs and begin the war on addiction. Addicts should be shown compassion and support, and not be dehumanized or dismissed as mere ‘junkies’.

Supporters of the Irish decriminalization policies believe that the US has much to learn from a more liberal outlook and first-person approach. The fact that Ireland — a staunchly Catholic and rather conservative country – is employing such progressive tactics towards addiction, should be the wake-up call that America so desperately needs. If the results in Ireland are positive, then backers of these liberal attitudes will begin the battle to have similar regulations rolled out in the U.S.

But both sides of the decriminalization argument will be keenly watching how the latest developments in Irish drug policies unfold. Naysayers believe that drug decriminalization will give the impression there is less risk attached, that it will be easier for children to obtain drugs, and that regulating these rules would prove almost impossible. Further, citing the pros of recent state-level marijuana legalization to bolster the decriminalization argument for harder drugs is inappropriate, as former heroin addict Ron Richards says:

“We’re not talking about just marijuana here,” says Richards. “Or even cocaine. We’re talking about heroin – one of the most dangerous and addictive substances there is. Of course it’s better for addicts to shoot up in clean, safe rooms with doctors than to shoot up in dirty and dangerous alleyways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. What about not shooting up altogether? I know how addictive heroin is, and the idea of the state giving it to me themselves seems senseless. Is it really between those two options: either punish and imprison, or enable it altogether? Is there nothing else the government can suggest?”

Perhaps there is some middle ground that neither Ireland nor the US have yet found. But it’s clear that something needs to be done, because there’s no getting away from the fact that the U.S. has a big heroin problem. Since 2007, heroin use has nearly doubled, and in 2013, 500,000 Americans admitted to using heroin in the past year, nearly a 150 percent increase over the past six years. Consequently, heroin-related deaths have nearly tripled.

However Ireland’s new drug policies unfold, America can certainly learn one thing from this new approach: that shaming and stigmatization does far more harm than good, and a little empathy goes a long way. In Ó Ríordáin’s words, “Addiction is not a choice, it’s a healthcare issue. This is why I believe it is imperative that we approach our drug problem in a more compassionate and sensitive way.”

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