Senator Lynn Ruane at ‘The Case For Drug Decriminalisation in Ireland’ | 03.03.2021

Lynn Ruane is an independent Senator for the University of Dublin constituency in Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate). As a guest speaker for TD Gino Kenny’s Case for Drug Decriminalisation in Ireland, Ruane shares her perspective on what is needed for effective drug reform, as someone who once used drugs and who grew up in a community which was significantly affected by the illegal drugs trade. The following text has been adapted from the live stream for the purpose of clarity. The questions were posed by TD Gino Kenny.

Hiya Gino, thanks for inviting me along this evening. I’m Senator Lynn Ruane, I’m a policymaker. I have a few hats (in the ring), but I suppose tonight I’m here in that role, as somebody that has advocated within her political career to end what I see as the criminalisation of poverty and marginalisation and addiction. I worked for about 20 years.. I still work in a sense, in the addiction sector. I still volunteer in a couple of different places and I do a bit of work with Safety Net around homelessness and health equity. So I’m still very much involved in different communities, but I try to take my experience and everything that I’ve learned as a working class woman and a woman that used drugs. And I try to take that into my career in the addiction sector and then from the addiction sector into policymaking. So, tonight I’ll be speaking very much from how I’ve tried to progress that conversation from the ground into the Houses of Parliament, which I’ve been doing since 2016. 

Is there a case for drug decriminalisation in Ireland? Yeah, there most certainly is. First we have to start with the whole concept and accept that prohibition hasn’t worked. The only reason we criminalise people is to stop people using drugs. I don’t think there’s any country that has shown that prohibition has achieved what it set out to do. I was a drug user from a very, very young age and a lot of my friends still are. And some have moved into recovery, (have) been addicted to heroin for a very long time, since we were in our early teens and our communities were destroyed by drugs. And at that time I thought that every community was the same, I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. As I began to work in addiction, I worked with cocaine users, heroin users, gambling, I worked right across the spectrum. But I worked primarily in working class communities, developing responses to drug use. 

For me there were two things that really cemented to me why we really need to change our drug laws. One of those is – why do we say that somebody is unwell or suffering with mental health (addiction being on that spectrum of mental health)? Somebody is using drugs because of trauma, because of poverty, and then we punish them for that. So you’re looking at a community and a group of people who experience addiction who are already being punished by their mere tendency to self-medicate. And obviously people talk saying there’s drugs in every area, in every community and of course I don’t deny that in any shape or form. Addiction is in any State and any postcode. But what we have to accept is that it’s very, very highly concentrated in terms of chaotic and problematic drug use in working class communities. And there’s a big difference between that type of drug use and drug use in the recreational sense or in the sense where your life is not going to fall apart because you’re a drug user.

And there’s different types of drug users. For communities like mine, they ended up with such problematic drug use because of their circumstances. And then to be punished for that and put into a system, when really it’s a health approach empathy, access and options and choices that they need. For me, the two things were that it’s a class issue and that prison and prohibition.. It just doesn’t work. So when I left the addiction sector and ran for the Senate, obviously my political career has been somewhat of an extension of my work within the sector. One of the very first Bills that I tabled within Leinster House was the Drug Decriminalisation Bill. Now that Bill is currently still on the Order Paper and we debated it, but they asked me to not push it at that time. The Minister at the time, Catherine Byrne, wanted to develop a Working Group to look at drug decriminalisation in Ireland.

So I presented to that and other different stakeholders did. There was obviously lots of good work, there was lots of expertise around the table. But there was a lot of evidence somewhat ignored in that, from speakers that we work with from the UK and Ireland. What they went with in the end was a diversion programme. It hasn’t been implemented yet and I know the Department is moving towards that and they’re eager to do that. I’m happy that people and the Department and politicians are starting to understand that it is a health issue. I don’t believe that this diversion programme makes it a health issue in how it’s going to be implemented, because it’s only a health issue for the first time that you get caught with drugs. What that working group ended up proposing was that it’s temporarily a health issue. So you get caught with drugs the first time and you’ll be then redirected into health services. But from there on, it’s no longer a health issue, it’s something else. It’s back into the Justice system. So on the one hand we’re acknowledging that people need help and then we’re only giving them one chance to get that. 

Now for me what that does is it creates another layer of that being a class issue. Because the likelihood of you getting caught with drugs more than once if you are in addiction, if you are on the streets or if you’re in communities that are very heavily policed.. Well then the likelihood of getting caught with drugs more than once is much, much higher, than if you are somebody who doesn’t have a problem with the drug, or is not living in the community that is heavily policed. So again, it still remains a class issue and for me the current proposals are a step forward. We need to go much further, but it still won’t actually protect those most vulnerable. So I think a case still needs to be made that we need to listen to the evidence in relation to drug decriminalisation and why it’s needed and why it’s necessary. And if we really want people to find their way into recovery, well then we need to create that opportunity. Not just once, but again, and again, and again, until somebody actually finds what works for them and finds how they want to progress. And if they end up in the prison system, that’s gonna become more and more difficult. 

What would decriminalisation look like, rather than the model that we have at the moment? The model at the moment is that, as you know… There’s not a day that goes by now that there aren’t seizures of drugs. It’s mainly cannabis, but there’s not a day that goes by in different parts of the country. So, whether drugs are legal or not, people are going to use them. If decriminalisation was implemented tomorrow, in your opinion, what would it look like in a practical sense?

I think there’s two questions wrapped up there. And one you’re touching on in terms of seizures – you’re talking about drug trade. And then drug decriminalisation. One is about supply, one is about the individual. For me, drug decriminalisation means that we’re decriminalising the individual. Like I said in my intro, we currently criminalise poverty. If we can accept that trauma and poverty and pain increase the likelihood of you becoming a chronic drug user, well then we’re saying that we are gonna criminalise you for your poverty and your pain. So I think we’d begin to remove some of the stigma. I think for me as well, working in the addiction and the homeless sector for as long as I have, I’ve seen peoples’ life trajectory in terms of illness and co-morbidities and everything else that comes with many, many years of drug use or homelessness and poverty. They’re all so intertwined, you know? And for me being able to say to somebody at a very early stage, “We don’t judge you. We don’t want to imprison you. We’re not going to make you face the justice system. But instead, we are going to offer you services.” But we need to remember when we offer services… People have to build recovery capital. People have to be ready. People have to want it. And recovery is not always about accidents either.

Sometimes it’s harm reduction, sometimes it’s making sure you have a roof over your head. Sometimes it’s making sure you can just keep your hospital appointments, ‘cause you might still be using drugs. So I think we need to acknowledge that recovery is not abstinence, not always abstinence at least. And decriminalisation isn’t just that you’re gonna offer someone a health appointment and off they go. And “That’s it, isn’t that great? Less people are staying on drugs.” It’s not really about that. And then the other argument that happens is that when you decriminalise drugs, you’re going to somehow decrease the drug use in a country. That’s also not true, but you’re giving people options at a much earlier stage, which means they have a better relationship with the services, they have a better relationship with the health system. And for anyone growing up in a community like mine where it is heavily policed and you do get stopped and searched and there has been violent interactions with Guards and there have been judgements that really break down the relationship with the State and authorities.

You’re not being stopped and searched all the time on the assumption that you might be in the possession of a small amount of drugs. It also might go in favour of community policing, because community policing can then stop unnecessarily targeting people because of how they look or where they’re hanging around, because they might be in possession of a couple of e or a bag of weed or something. And I think it can go some way into healing some of that relationship and I think that’s really, really necessary if we’re going to have a legal system that’s going to be operating inside communities that do experience hardship like that. In terms of resources which you were talking about… when I was developing my legislation, we got some really big financial people to come in to look at the economics of prohibition. And (to) look at how much money can actually be saved by decriminalising drugs.

And we hit some big, big figures in the year, in the millions. And that was only scraping the surface. So that’s only looking at your really typical stuff like prison, legal aid, the judiciary, stuff like that. But if you were to look at the health system, you look at the amount of people that end up in that revolving door of the A & E. Deep vein thrombosis, hepatitis, all of those things. Sometimes it’s years and years before someone accesses healthcare. But if they can access it much earlier on, under a decrim model, some of those co-morbidities might be helped somewhat. So you might have health savings as well. I think if you were to carry out a study over a long term, a longitudinal study, you will see that there are savings in the health system as well, long term. So, they’re just some of the things that will happen with decriminalisation, but I think drug dealing and supply have been touched on a little bit. And this is something that I’ve worked on for many years. Not a lot of people have been too much in favour of my work around the drug trade.

The first piece of work I did was… Gerry Roe would maybe have worked with me at the time, in Bluebell Addiction Services and it was doing a research piece on drug dealers’ views and exit strategies. So for some reason we seem to want to separate drug dealers and drug users. And for me, I don’t really want to do that in too much of a sense, at that community level. At that working class community level. Because both of them are born from poverty, from lack of opportunity. Drug dealing among young men especially is often born from the want to succeed. They want to have basic things. And when we carried out the research, some people said things like they just didn’t want to wear their older brothers’ hand-me-downs any more. Or you know, in the ’90s, when all the houses were getting window weather glaze, before the corporation decided to do it, one young man wanted to make money to get weather glazed windows because he was the only house in the row that couldn’t afford to get them in, so these are some of the reasons why people enter the drug trade. And I think, for me, I don’t want to ever demonise those young men.

I want to look at what the root cause of addiction is in many circumstances and what the root cause of entry into the drug trade is. I think with decriminalisation and legalisation, we can begin to look at poverty and that social floor. And if you don’t have a good basis of a social floor, well then how can we ever really succeed? And it really goes back to what 1Carl (Hart) was saying and what some of the others were saying. It’s about politicians, it’s about being able to actually ask and answer the big questions. And to actually address the unequal and unfair system that we live in.  

Lynn, I’m gonna come to you in relation to going beyond decriminalisation and the ongoing debate in Ireland. I understand it’s gonna be debated in the Citizens Assembly sometime this year. Now, this debate has been going on now for a long, long, long time. Far too long, and we need to get on with it. The majority of people in Ireland understand that you cannot police your way out of people that take drugs. It’s just unworkable. So what do you say to people that say, “If decriminalisation is introduced, more drugs will come into peoples’ hands. And the violence that accompanies drug gangs won’t be tackled”?

I suppose again it’s like having a few conversations. Decriminalisation is very much about the individual. Legalisation is much more about the collective, for me. So, we only begin to address the quality of drugs, the types of drugs, the safety of the drugs, when we begin to legalise. With decriminalisation, it’s very much about stigma. There’s even different variations of what decriminalisation looks like, like de-penalisation. But I feel like we have a little bit of a way to go. Again, it’s one of those things where politics is behind the public. And that’s often the case, that politics is behind the public. And I think that sometimes people are a little bit afraid to take that leap in, and be ambitious, and be courageous in their policymaking. And then sometimes you see a hierarchy of drugs being created. A lot of people advocate very – forget about the medicinal cannabis – But when I see people really, really advocating for the legalisation of cannabis, I always get a little bit uncomfortable by that.

Because within the legalisation aspect of things, there are people then that want to set different drugs apart from each other. And I don’t think that that should happen, because that creates again another class system of how we create drugs policy in Ireland. And I don’t think that that’s the way to go, at all. I do think decriminalisation needs to happen, to show Ireland and to show mostly our policymakers, that the world doesn’t end. That actually it’s a positive. And I think when people get comfortable in that space of decriminalisation, they’ll begin to expand their minds and expand, I suppose, their ambitions around drug policy in general. And begin to think about, well what would it mean to legalise? And I think to legalise is really important.

A country has everything to gain from legalising drugs. Right down to supply, right down to accessing services. And right down to saving peoples’ lives, and actually having a good quality of drugs. And like Carl said, there’s so many people in high society, in elite society, in middle class society, that use drugs. And the type of drug they use can often differ, but they still use drugs. And surely they can get their heads around the idea that wouldn’t cleaner, safer drug use be better for them too, you know? For me, I think the conversation has moved a little bit, but not even nearly far enough. And I think it’s because politicians are slow to react to what the people actually want. 222,000 submissions came into the Health Department for drug decriminalisation. The largest ever sample of society that contributed to a single piece to a department, and it was on drug decriminalisation. And it was so heavily in favour of drug decriminalisation.

Yet, when the State had the opportunity to take those 22,000 submissions… Then they had a working group. And then they came up with something completely different to what the working group recommended. So it shows that we provide State and policymakers with what society wants and then they shave it back. So for me, I think what we need is a really ambitious Minister and Department that wants to drive these things forward. And (who) is not going to be bogged down by Civil Servants or by vested interests. And I think that when we get that person that will be strong or be brave in how they make decisions, I think that we can move it along. But I think the public are with us, and politicians aren’t there yet. 

Lynn, how do you see it going in the next eighteen months or so? I think what’s going to happen in relation to the programme that’s being put forward, in terms of the diversion, I think they will implement that. I think they’ll do it administratively, instead of legislation. I think that was the feedback we got over recent weeks. I think they will pilot what they’ve already suggested, which is fine. But I think in parallel to that happening, we need to be making sure that we’re still advancing the conversation. It’s a different piece of legislation, but my spent convictions legislation also looks to do a bit of a keyhole work-in to drugs legislation in a sense, and employment legislation. Because there is an intersection between them. So, the spent convictions legislation that I’ve moved quite far along in the Seanad will hopefully go into the Dáil before the end of the year. Before summer recess would be the dream.

But within that, it also looks to remove drugs possession from the Garda vetting aspect. So, people that were caught in possession when they go for employment.. Even if that conviction becomes spent, if they only had one conviction for possession, it keeps coming up and it keeps coming up. They can’t volunteer, they can’t travel, they can’t do anything with their lives. So, I hope that we still keep advancing our conversations and keep highlighting to policymakers that we need to advance further what they’ve already put forward. And hopefully, the spent convictions legislation can be another step forward. Even though it’s not drug decriminalisation, it is really still hitting a similar target group, in terms of allowing people to live their lives. Integrate, rehabilitate, and do it at their own pace. When they’re ready. And creating the structures for them to be able to do that. So I think, just to say one thing, whatever the Department put forward, let us try and support that to work as best it can. None of us feel that it’s what we wanted, it’s not enough. But let it do what it wants to do. 

But still keep advancing the conversations and pushing the agenda further. And I think we can continue to do that in a number of different ways. I’m the chair of the cross-Party group on drug policy reform. And we’ve invited the Minister in, and that’s a cross-Party group across many different politicians and Parties. And we’re trying to work together to reform drug policy. Not only in terms of drug decrim, but across the board. Drug policy, in general. We’re having a lot of those conversations. And I also see that as an education of policymakers that don’t necessarily understand or are not exposed to addiction in the same way that some other politicians are. So for me, that group allows us to actually have a safe space, where we can bring politicians along on that journey. The next step is to keep opening hearts and minds. And when you have hearts and minds, people will step into that space and the policy will change. I’m with Ger (Gerard Roe). I think by 2025, the bulk of the work will be done and we will be there in some sort of big policy change. 

I’d like to thank everybody for joining the discussion. Lynn, Gerard, Philly (McMahon) and Carl. It was a very, very good discussion. I think there’s a lot of people that have engaged. I couldn’t get to everybody’s questions, (it was) just not possible. I’ll try and give another meeting similar to this in the next couple of months. A number of people have asked me about the cannabis Bill. I probably will be introducing it sometime around late July, or September. It’s called The Cannabis Regulation and Control Bill. Timing is obviously very important. Some good news I can reveal tonight – The Medical Cannabis Access Programme will be operational in June. This will be the first time that people can get medical cannabis under prescription. So it’ll be functional in June. I know we don’t conflate the two issues, but I think at least it’s a recognition by the State that cannabis can be used as a medicine, as well as for other reasons.

On a note of hope, I along with People Before Profit will continue to raise the issue of decriminalisation. It’s strange, because Frank Feighan (Minister with responsibility for the national drug strategy), I keep meeting him all the time! And I do have informal conversations with him. So I’m pushing him, informally, to say: “Look it man, you’ve gotta go beyond what the other predecessors have been doing. It’s not working, you’ve gotta be radical. You’ve gotta be [a] revolution when it comes to drug reform. Because it just doesn’t work, what you’ve been doing in the past.” I’ll be in his ear, and everybody else’s ear. And in my time, and in Lynn’s time when we’re in the Seanad, we’ll be pushing for drug reform. Because, what drug reform to me is about, it’s about saving lives. And giving people hope, you know?

You’re never gonna eradicate drugs, it’s just not possible. People will always use drugs for all sorts of reasons. But the best way to tackle that issue is to look at it more maturely and more differently than we’ve ever done before. And to me that starts with decriminalisation and looking beyond that. And that’s why I’m gonna introduce the Bill, as I said, some time this year. Around legalisation of cannabis, which I think is a no-brainer. Public opinion is way ahead of politicians. So on that note, thanks everybody for contributing tonight. It was a very, very good discussion and we’ll see yis in the future. Thanks!

References:

1 Carl Hart‘s contribution to this online talk was recently featured as a post on The Green Lens,

and can be read here: https://bit.ly/3iJwjBP

2 For more information on the public consultation mentioned by Lynn, see the Working Group’s report

at this link: https://bit.ly/2Vedn5R

* The online panel discussion, hosted by People Before Profit, can be viewed in full at this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAgtPMDmZzQ

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