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Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs in Ireland

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Published: 21st Oct 2021

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Tagged: Criminal Law


City Wide Drug Crisis Campaign is an accumulation of community activists and organisations that are currently representing the illicit drug crisis within Ireland on behalf of its citizens (Citywide - Drugs Crisis Campaign, 2017) a crisis which extends back to the early 1960s and 1970s where the noticeable use of Cannabis, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Amphetamines otherwise known as Speed or Crystal meth began to take place.

Although research was being conducted in the use of illicit drugs at the time it did not raise any concerns. By the 1980s Heroin became to be an epidemic within the greater Dublin city area because of its extensive usage but there was little or no national support given to affected communities because people believed it was an inner city problem (O’Gorman, 1998). By the mid-1990s it was reported that 13,460 people within Dublin were now using Opiates (Comiskey, 2018) sixteen years later 2006 figures show that 14,909 were now using opiates but have stabilized again to figures of 13,458 (Hay, 2018). It is evident through prevalence research that our drug crisis has not gone away.

By the mid-1980s the Government and the Dublin health service provider formulated committees to report on this ongoing crisis which resulted in legislation changes to rectify the distribution of drugs but little or no changes in the area of addiction or the reduction of harm (O Gorman, 1996).

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and 1984 are the primary legislation that you may be charged with in an offence of Drugs and these acts have been further amended in Criminal Justice Act 1999, 2006, 2007, Misuse of Drug Amendment 2015 and most recent act in 2017 for supervised injecting facilities (Citizens information.ie, 2015) (Dáil Éireann, 2017).

The Governments primary role is to educate people on why they should not turn to drugs, to establish appropriate centres for individuals who depend on drugs and have strategies in place to stop illicit drug use and distribution at local and national levels (Moran et al., 2000). If the Government are working so tiredly on this covert crisis then why are we failing to reduce the amount of illicit drug use within our society?

If we look at the research that has been provided by the Portuguese Government on the “Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs” it is evident that the Irish Government in particular Minister of State for Drug Strategy Catherine Byrne the Department of Health, Justice, Education and Revenue Commissioners need to adopt a more health led response on the drug crisis within Ireland and move away from the criminal justice approach that criminally convicts individuals and punishes them for bearing their addictions with little chance of stabilising their lives with criminal convictions (Hetzor, 2018).

In Governments defence they have implemented numerous strategies to deal with the harm reduction and addictions in such areas as the “Anna Liffey Drug Project “ which was established in 1982 and was given legal funding’s working in the Dublin city region as the first treatment agency. Since then there has been extensive prevention of harm measures put in place through the Eastern Health Board (EHB) the regional health authority of Dublin such as the implementation of addiction councillors, In 1987 methadone treatment was more widely available,1989 seen the introduction of aids centres to a needle and syringe exchange (Quigley et al., 2013) and to date we see the programme “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery and health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025” which commenced on the 17th of July 2017 (Galvin, 2017).

Regardless of our recent health lead response programme the central statistics office states controlled drug offences has risen from 16,792 in 2017 to 18,390 in 2018 a total of 9.5 percent (Www.cso.ie, 2019).

The purpose of this literature review is to propose the decriminalization of illicit drugs within Ireland and analyse the benefits it will have on our society while comparing to other foreign policies.

Analysis of the factors

On the 15th of March 2019 a gathering of United Nation (UN) members and human right experts in Vienna sanctioned a set of international legal standards to help restructure failing worldwide responses to the worlds illicit drug problem (Khadka, 2015) . The Human Rights Watch have also voiced their support of decriminalisation of illicit drugs, arguing that “Drug control policies that introduce criminal penalties for personal drug use impair basic human rights…Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy” (Drug Policy Alliance , 2015). Drug decriminalisation and legalisation must not be mistaken. (Europa.eu, 2015) claims Decriminalisation simply means that no criminal penalties may be applied in this case to illicit drugs found in an individual’s possession for personal use, it does not mean the behaviour is legal.

The Central Statistical Office (CSO) reports from 2017 to the first quarter of 2018 there were 18,390 drug offences and 13,455 of them were for personal use which equates to 71 percent of all offences (Www.cso.ie, 2019). It cost the state a total of 241 million euros on drug related expenditure throughout this period, if we simply introduce this piece of legislation it has been proven by our Portuguese counterparts that it reduces spending in the criminal justice system and leads to more positive social results and also diverts the Guards attention from petty personal use quantities of illicit drugs to more lucrative drug traffickers (Stephens and Hughes, 2016). By decriminalising illicit drug use we are welcoming drug users to step forward and seek help without being in fear of criminal convictions thus leading to a more accurate compilation of research and data.

A survey conducted by (Lawless and Corr, 2018) on 355 homeless participants in 2005 showed that 19 percent became homeless because of personal drug use, 13 percent because of alcohol and 87 percent because of drug use at a younger age. By decriminalizing illicit drugs it would help distribute some of the 241 million euro public expenditure to be distributed between the current crises Ireland is now facing with homelessness. (Curtin, 2016) published a paper outlining an increase of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on a population of homeless people injecting drugs in Dublin out of 38 people tested 18 of them conducted HIV from injecting while 20 of them confirmed having sex with a person that injects drugs or is a HIV positive carrier. While reviewing the Portuguese model of drug policy we can see why Ireland would benefit on the factual figures that the Portuguese drug policy displays along with other areas.

Since the early 1980s 8,826 people have been diagnosed with HIV. (Hivireland.ie, 2018) believes that 492 people were newly diagnosed with HIV within the year 2017 that’s 77 percent male 23 percent female and amongst that number 17 injected drugs, this figure has risen by 8 percent in 2018.

There were also 11 deaths notified in the CSO where the recognition of death was HIV or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). In 2016 it was reported by (Europa.eu, 2019) that one third of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) were related to people injecting illicit drugs.

Portugal have become one of the leading European countries within the World Health Organization (WHO) that believe will end AIDS by 2030 that was reported by the Portuguese Minister for Health (Fernandes, 2018). In the early 1990s Portugal was one of the highest EU countries with HIV resulting from the majority injecting drugs. In a ten year period Portugal almost halved new HIV infections from 2,167 to 1,030 to the year 2016, although Ireland have relatively small numbers introduced by injecting drugs it still remains a problem that can be rectified by the adoption of the Portuguese policy.

By shifting from a criminal justice lead policy to a Health lead policy we can focus on evidence comprised of factual figures of who exactly is carrying the Virus and have government more committed to solving this ongoing problem. Portuguese figures prove that 91 percent of its citizens living with HIV are diagnosed and 86 percent of them are being diagnosed (Fernandes, 2018).

The fact Ireland still uses a criminal justice approach to illicit drugs maybe one of the factors people are afraid to reach out for help and could easily contribute to the fact Ireland have been ranked fourth within the EU for drug related deaths. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug addiction (Europa.eu, 2015) Portugal have a population of 6,690,517 between the ages 15-64 in 2016 and had a total of 30 over doses relating to illicit drugs compared to Ireland with a population of 3,129,411 between the ages 15 – 64 in 2015 had a total of 224 illicit drug over doses.

(Lyons and Lynn, 2019) reported in 2016 there were a record total of 736 combined drug related deaths licit and illicit. To put Portugal’s decriminalization policy in perspective, (Hetzor, 2018) stated that in 2017 there were 72,000 drug related over dose deaths within the United States of America (USA), if they were to address that issue like the Portuguese model it would have been the equivalent of 800 deaths. Portugal are not the only country to have decriminalized illicit Drug use or possession.

University of New South Wales (UNSW, 2016) claim there are 28 countries that have decriminalised illicit drug use or possession, some of these countries are USA (11 states), Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria and each have their own Drug strategies in place such as  Portugal has the use of dissuasion commissions under their drug policy which are separate to the criminal justice system, they decide if an individual should be penalised on the grounds of the amount of illicit drugs caught on his possession or deferred for treatment of addiction in the event that individual has previously offended (Gov.UK, 2014).

This would be an immense breakthrough for the marginalised youths within our society leaving courts with criminal convictions rather than being placed in treatment centres to help with the illicit drug use or dependency.

Germany since 2000 have introduced Drug Consumption Rooms (CR) that are currently operating in 15 cities and 6 states where individuals may bring non subscribed or illicit drugs with them to consume under the supervision of trained staff, they are put in place as a harm reduction option to reduce the risk or spread of disease to reduce over dose deaths and also to get people who are addicted in connection with rehabilitation programmes to help influence more positive social behaviour and outcomes (Loc.gov, 2016).

15 years later Ireland decide to take similar actions. On the 15th of December 2015 the government amended the 2015 Misuse of Drugs Bill and approved the opening of an injecting facility, the Bill passed through the Seanad in 2017 in the hope of reducing drug related deaths, Dáil Éireann (2017),  (HSE, 2017). (Millar, 2019) reported that Ireland was due to open up its first  injecting facility  in Merchants Quay in September of 2019 that could facilitate 65 addicts a day  but due to 99 objections mainly worried about social behaviour and drug dealing brought the project to a halt.

Unfortunately in Irish drug policy there seems to be an ambiguity even though it is prohibited (Moran, 2013, p.225). First example was provided by (O’mahony, 2008, p.114)  who stated that there was no public inclusion on the introduction of harm reducing practices such as needle exchange centres or community based drug services or even the fact Heroin users within Ireland can take advantage of Methadone which was legally introduced as a substitute for Opiates.

(Moran, 2013, p.245) also argues that Ambiguity is clearly seen between the relationship of alcohol and drugs in the view of Irish society where the people recognises alcohol as a drug but can still be a legal substance. It was also commented by (Spooner, 2011) that alcohol policy was developed on the rights that people can consume alcohol within moderation. It’s another indication of ambiguity in Irish Drug Policy to say that our Minister of Health acknowledges that we need a more health lead response to illicit Drugs but at the same time it can essentially award you a criminal conviction in the process.  


In the 2019 budget Citywide firstly propose Government amend the “misuse of drugs act 1984” to decriminalize the possession of any controlled Drug substance for personal use and take into consideration that this amendment has been supported by 22 countries listed by the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world Drug problem and opposed by 10 (Idpc.net, 2016).

As earlier stated by (Khadka, 2015) these international legal standards were modified to rectify violations in human rights standards and help Governments formulate policy to address the failing criminal justice approach that is set in place, for example number 9 Right to Privacy “everyone has the right to privacy, including people that use drugs” (HRDP, 2019) .

Citywide also propose to introduce a tax for people caught with illicit drugs in their possession that they are financially penalised and then deferred for treatment. The penalty will remain the same charge of 500 euro that can be appointed to a person caught for the first time as outlined in (citizen information.ie) The CSO confirmed previously that 18,390 drug offences occurred from 2017 to the first quarter of 2018. That would result in 13,455 personal use cases reported x 500 euro = 6,727,500 euro in tax that can be contributed to future Drug Policy formulation in the areas of education and advertisement.


It is evident in this review of literature that illicit drugs continue to be a problem within the state as it was first identified in 1960 and is starting to be fuelled by our homeless crisis. Although evidence does support a “Health lead response to Drugs” and UN members and human right experts sanctioned a set of international legal standards in support of decriminalization it still remains a criminal offence to carry illicit drugs for personal use within Ireland.

Evidence also suggests that since Portugal implemented the decriminalization of drugs that over dose deaths have decreased dramatically to 4 per million compared to Irelands 69 per million, that HIV has almost halved and that there has been a decrease in adult population users but this evidence is difficult to identify if it was solely down to decriminalization or was it because of an array of other complex strategies that were put in place at that time by Portuguese government.

The implementation of decriminalisation in drug policy identifies up to 28 countries taking full acknowledgment of the successful outcomes it may contribute to. However future research is needed to identify what strategies work best when constructing drug policy in each individual country.


Curtin, M. (2016). HIV infection among homeless people who inject drugs.  - Drugs and Alcohol. Drugsandalcohol.ie. [online] Available at: www.drugsandalcohol.ie[Accessed 6 Oct. 2019].

Citywide - Drugs Crisis Campaign (2017). About Citywide | Citywide - Drugs Crisis Campaign. [online] Citywide - Drugs Crisis Campaign. Available at: www.citywide.ie[Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Citizensinformation.ie (2015). Drug offences. [online] Citizensinformation.ie. Available at: www.citizensinformation.ie [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Comiskey, C. (2018). Estimating the prevalence of opiate drug use in Dublin, Ireland during 1996.  - Drugs and Alcohol. Drugsandalcohol.ie. [online] Available at: www.drugsandalcohol.ie [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Dáil Éireann (2017). Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Act  2017. [online] Oireachtas.ie. Available at: www.oireachtas.ie [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].

DPA (2015). Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use & Possession. Drug Policy Alliance, [online] p.3. Available at: www.unodc.org [Accessed 6 Oct. 2019].

Europa.eu. (2019). Drug-related infectious diseases in Ireland 2019 | www.emcdda.europa.eu. [online] Available at: www.emcdda.europa.eu/countries/drug-reports[Accessed 7 Oct. 2019].

Europa.eu. (2015). European Drug Report 2015: Trends and Developments www.emcdda.europa.eu. [online] Available at: www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/edr/trends-developments [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].

Fernandes, A.C. (2018). Portugal on fast track to achieve HIV targets ahead of 2020 deadline. World Health Organisation. [online] Available at: www.euro.who.int/en/countries/portugal [Accessed 7 Oct. 2019].

Galvin, B. ed., (2017). New National Drug and Alcohol Strategy launched. Drugnet, [online] (63), p.1. Available at: www.hrb.ie/fileadmin/publications_files/Drugnet [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Gov.UK (2014). Drugs: International Comparators. Home Office, [online] p.5. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government [Accessed 8 Oct. 2019].

Hay, G. (2018). New estimates of problem opiate use in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, [online] (64), p.3. Available at: www.hrb.ie/fileadmin/user_upload/Drugnet64.pdf [Accessed 2019].

Hetzor, H. (2018). Drug Decriminalization in Portugal Learning from a Health and Human-Centred Approach. Drug Policy Alliance, [online] p.6. Available at: www.drugpolicy.org.pdf [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

HRDP (2019). International GUIDELINES on HUMAN RIGHTS and DRUG POLICY. Human Rights and Drug Policy, [online] p.14. Available at: www.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].

HSE (2017). Supervised Injecting Facilities. [Online] www.hse.ie. Available at: www.hse.ie/primarycare [Accessed 8 Oct. 2019].

Hivireland.ie. (2018). HIV in Ireland – HIV Ireland. [online] Available at: www.hivireland.ie/hiv/hiv-in-ireland/ [Accessed 7 Oct. 2019]

Idpc.net. (2016). The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016. [online] Available at: https://idpc.net/policy-advocacy/the-un-general-assembly-special-session-on-drugs-ungass-2016.

Khadka, S. (2015). Landmark international guidelines launched on human rights and drug policy. UNAIDS, [online] 1. Available at: www.unaids.org/ [Accessed 6 Oct. 2019].

Lawless, M. and Corr, C. (2018). Drug use among the homeless population in Ireland.  - Drugs and Alcohol. Drugsandalcohol.ie. [online] Available at: www.drugsandalcohol.ie [Accessed 6 Oct. 2019].

Loc.gov. (2016). Decriminalization of Narcotics: Germany. [online] Available at: www.loc.gov/law/help/decriminalization-of-narcotics [Accessed 8 Oct. 2019].

Lyons, S. and Lynn, E. (2019). Drug‐Related Deaths 2016. Health Research Board, [online] p.1. Available at: www.hrb.ie/fileadmin/2._Plugin_related_files/Publications [Accessed 7 Oct. 2019].

Millar, S. (2019). Merchants Quay Ireland annual review, 2017.  - Drugs and Alcohol. Drugsandalcohol.ie. [online] Available at: www.drugsandalcohol.ie/30646/ [Accessed 8 Oct. 2019].

Moran, J. (2013). Unfinished Business : Social Policy for Social Care Students in Ireland. Dublin: Orpen Press, p.225,p.245

O’Gorman, A. (1998). Illicit Drug Use in Ireland: An Overview of the Problem and Policy Responses. Journal of Drug Issues, 28(1), pp.155–166.

O’Mahony, P. (2008). The Irish war on drugs : the seductive folly of prohibition. Manchester, Uk ; New York: Manchester University Press ; New York, p.114.

Quigley, E., Hughes, B., Sorti, C.C. and Zobel, F. (2013). Drug Policy Profiles. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, [online] p.14. Available at: www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/publications[Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

Stephens, A. and Hughes, C.E. (2016). Decriminalisation and public health: the Portuguese approach to drug policy. The journal Movements, [online] (86), p.7. Available at: www.academia.edu/24961219 [Accessed 6 Oct. 2019].

UNSW (2016). Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note. National Drug and Research Centre, [online] p.4. Available at: dpmp.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files [Accessed 8 Oct. 2019].

Www.cso.ie. (2019). Recorded Crime Q4 2018 - CSO - Central Statistics Office. [online] Available at: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-rc/recordedcrimeq42018/ [Accessed 4 Oct. 2019].

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Analysis : Criminalization of Drugs lead to criminal convictions not recovery




It is illegal to be in possession of illicit drugs for personal use

Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and 1984 are the primary legislation that you may be charged with in an offence of Drugs, including possession

First time offenders maybe marginalised in society which prevent rehabilitation by convictions in court

Criminal justice lead approach rather than Health lead response

criminal penalties for personal drug use impair basic human rights

Hundreds of millions being wasted by the government in the Criminal Justice system

A health lead response is slowly being implemented but ultimately it still remains a criminal offence

Ireland views small amounts of drugs for personal use illegal which can carry a lifelong penalty if proven guilty in court  E.g. a Student may get prosecuted with a criminal conviction which may affect his future, college, work and social life resulting in possibility of repeating Drug offences

Public are uneducated on the difference between Decriminalization and Legalization

Triangle Analysis and Mapping Strategies

Mapping Strategies




Laws need to be amended for a health regulation of personal drug use

Dissuasion commissions need to be implemented to decide if an individual should be penalised on the grounds of the amount of illicit drugs caught on his possession or deferred for treatment of addiction.

International legal standards need enforcing

Portuguese counterparts prove that decriminalization reduces spending in the criminal justice system

Decriminalisation simply means that no criminal penalties may be applied to illicit drugs found in an individual’s possession for personal use, it does not mean the behaviour is legal, we need to fund advertisements to stress this point to move the publics perceptions

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