Frequently Asked Questions
- What is decriminalisation?
- What is the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation?
- Will a decriminalisation policy lead to a relaxation of drug laws?
- Are there health risks associated with the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances?
- Will decriminalisation help reduce the health risks associated with illicit drug use?
- Will decriminalisation lead to an increase in drug use?
- Will parents face an even greater challenge after decriminalisation in trying to persuade their children not to use illicit drugs?
- Will decriminalising drug use send a message that it is OK to use drugs?
- Will decriminalisation place greater strain on already over-stretched law enforcement and drugs services?
According to the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, decriminalisation may defined as follows:
Decriminalisation refers to the removal of criminal status from a certain behaviour or action. This does not mean that the behaviour is legal, as non-criminal penalties may still be applied. With respect to the drug debate, this concept is usually used to describe laws addressing personal possession or use rather than drug supply.
- What are depenalisation, legalisation and regulation?
The European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction defines these three terms as follows:
Depenalisation refers to introducing the possibility or policy of closing a criminal case without proceeding towards punishment, for example as the case is considered ‘minor’ or prosecution is ‘not in the public interest’.
Legalisation refers to making an act lawful when previously it was prohibited. In the context of drugs, this usually refers to the removal of all criminal and noncriminal sanctions, although other regulations may limit the extent of the permission. This term is generally used in the context of drug supply.
Regulation implies that a set of rules and restrictions is placed around the supply or use of a substance, as is the case for alcohol and tobacco. Regulatory systems usually place limits on access, such as age limits and control of outlets, and may place restrictions on advertising. Penalties for breaching these rules may be criminal or non-criminal.
NO. Decriminalisation will not ‘relax’ the law on drugs. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 will stay in place. All that will change will be the penalties attaching to certain possession offences, specifically the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The penalties are likely to involve sanctions such as a fine or participation in some type of education or treatment programme, depending on the particular circumstances of the individual offender. The definition of ‘small amounts’ and the precise nature of the sanctions that will be appropriate in the Irish context will have to be worked out.
YES. There are serious health risks currently associated with the use of narcotic and psychotropic substances for non-medical or non-scientific purposes, i.e. illicit drug use. The most recent World Drug Report, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2016, shows the scale of the problem internationally:
- An estimated quarter of a billion people, or around 5 per cent of the global adult population, used drugs at least once in 2015. Of these, some 29.5 million, including 12 million who inject drugs, are suffering from drug use disorders.
- Many risk factors, including the transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C and the incidences of drug overdoses, cause the death rate among people who inject drugs (PWID) to be 15 times higher than in the rest of the population.
- An estimated 1.6 million of people who inject drugs (PWID) were living with HIV in 2015 and 6.1 million living with Hepatis C.
- In 2015, there were an estimated 190,000 drug related deaths worldwide
- While data indicate that the use of opiates (heroin and opium) has remained stable at the global level, cocaine use has increased and the use of cannabis and the non-medical use of pharmaceutical opioids has continued to rise.
- The transition from drug use to drug dependence occurs for a much smaller proportion of cannabis users than for opioid, amphetamine or cocaine users. However, evidence suggests that cannabis use disorders have increased and this increase is reflected in the high proportion of persons seeking first-time treatment in several regions of the world.
- Demand for treatment has also increased for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) - including methamphetamine and MDMA or 'Ecstasy' - and for new psychoactive substances (NPS), also known as 'legal highs'.
YES. The evidence indicates that decriminalisation helps reduce the health risks associated with drug use by shifting the focus from a criminal justice to a health-led approach. This encourages and enables drug users to access drug treatment. This in turn reduces the problems associated with illicit drug use such as drug-related deaths and infections.
What the evidence also shows, however, is that decriminalisation alone is not responsible for reducing health risks and health-related problems. It is one among several factors that contribute. In other words, legislative change alone is not enough to significantly minimise the harms associated with drug use. A change in the law needs to occur alongside a range of other responses, including complementary drug education and drug treatment programmes, and a refocusing of police efforts on interruption of trafficking operations.
NO. The evidence to date shows that, overall, decriminalisation has had no or a very small effect, either up or down, on rates of drug use. At the same time, the evidence highlights the difficulties in drawing firm conclusions about trends. Data collection and analytical methodologies vary considerably across jurisdictions and among researchers and have a significant effect on findings.
NO. Advocates of decriminalisation do not claim that it is OK to use drugs. The evidence shows there are serious risks associated with illicit drug use for individuals, communities and society as a whole. What decriminalisation does claim is that the consequences of drug use are made worse by addressing them through the criminal justice system rather than through the health system. The problems that arise from drug use are most successfully addressed through a health-led approach.
Decriminalisation is a harm reduction measure, much like a needle exchange service or opioid substitution therapy. Diverting a drug user into a preventive or a treatment programme is not saying that drug use is OK.
NO. If anything, parents’ anxiety levels about their children will reduce after decriminalisation. The possession of small amounts of a drug for personal use will continue to be illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and sanctions will still be imposed. The sanctions, however, will comprise a range of possible diversion programmes such as an education or a treatment programme rather than a criminal conviction, which can have negative consequences for a young person’s employment and life prospects, long after they have stopped using drugs.
YES, in the short term.
The evidence suggests that an effective decriminalisation programme will require a range of complementary law enforcement, prevention, treatment and reintegration interventions that may not currently be provided. Moreover, in the short term, the demand for services may increase.
In the long-term, the answer is more likely, no. Evidence indicates that decriminalisation does not lead to increases in crime and can lead to less use of police, court and prison. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that decriminalisation can help shift the attention of law enforcement agents away from minor drug offenders towards major traffickers.