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Europe Looks at Decriminalization, Starting with Ireland

Maureen Meehan

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Fourteen years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and took a public health approach to illegal drug use. After years of overdose deaths and skyrocketing HIV/AIDS, Portugal now the second lowest number of drug-related deaths in all of Europe.

Other countries are now looking to replicate Portugal’s success. Chief among them is Ireland, which is considering the view that drug abuse should be dealt with as a public health rather than criminal justice issue.

Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, recently invited representatives from regional drug and alcohol task forces to a roundtable discussion in Dublin on a possible move toward Portugal-style drug policy. The meeting produced wide consensus on decriminalization of all drugs and diverting funding for prosecution to treatment, according to The Irish Times.

“There has to be a continuum of care… an understanding around supports, resources, counseling and all those different things,” Ó Ríordáin said.

Ireland’s legislative Committee on Justice, Defense, and Equality sent some of its members to Lisbon this summer to learn more about the 15-year experiment with decriminalization. The delegation found a dramatic drop in the number of HIV/AIDS cases, a decrease in drug-related crime, and no increase in drug use. Predictions that Portugal would become a destination for drug tourists, committee members wrote in their report from the trip, have not come true.

Peter McVerry, a priest who has worked with the homeless in Ireland for 35 years, submitted comments to the Justice Committee in support of moving toward the Portugal model. “The enormous cost of arresting and prosecuting people for possession of drugs for personal use over the past 30 to 40 years has been a total waste of money,” McVerry told The Irish Times.

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