Natalie O’Regan is a Master of Law who specialises in criminological theory concerning the stigma of drug use and the societal barriers that prevent people from seeking treatment. Her thesis Blunt Trauma: The Impact of Stigma on Cannabis Users and the need to Decriminalise Personal Possession in Ireland, upholds that decriminalisation of drug use will incur a multitude of health and communal benefits as seen with Portugal’s model of drug reform.
With every passing year, the discussion of cannabis legislation in Ireland becomes more prevalent due to the exposure of archaic and counterproductive laws governing cannabis. This occurs due to those experimenting with the drug for the first time only to realise the hurdles one must jump through to obtain it, or it could simply be a reaction to the avalanche of news cases where people receive a conviction for personal use, almost always for medicinal purposes. The discussion is becoming more prominent due to information about the plant’s benefits reaching those it wouldn’t have before and of course, the coverage of other country’s dealings with the drug and how it benefited them to reform their cannabis legislation. One of the many individuals sharing the truths about cannabis is Natalie O’Regan, whose thesis Blunt Trauma: The Impact of Stigma on Cannabis Users and the need to Decriminalise Personal Possession in Ireland sheds light on Portugal’s drug reform and how it has benefited its citizens as a whole. She focuses on the stigma of criminality that impacts the drug consumer’s life and how decriminalisation of personal possession is the first step of many in seeing Ireland reform its cannabis legislation.
Natalie begins with an introduction on how harm reduction has gained support recently as it serves to address the health and social issues that are rampant from drug use. The support comes from the realisation that the social issues that stem from an arrest are counterproductive in preventing further drug use and subsequently do more harm to the psyche of an individual due to how society views drug convictions. Since 2001, Portugal has been leading by example as they’ve seen numerous societal benefits since successfully decriminalising personal possession of illicit drugs in conjunction with investments into treatment options as well as education and prevention of drug use. The main takeaway from this change was the removal of the stigmas surrounding drug use, allowing for a more fruitful discussion into tackling the social harms associated with it.
Natalie notes that cannabis is the most commonly used drug today and the penalties for consuming it should be lower than harsher illicit drugs. That health should be the main concern for all of those involved but this takes a back seat to the protocol of punishment that society deems to be the only solution in preventing drug use. To combat drug use, medical care should be the first option as we’ve seen with the system we have now, imprisonment doesn’t deter individuals from partaking in drugs. Natalie then sheds light on the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 which failed to define personal use leaving many in the dark regarding its classification.
Natalie reveals 70% of drug-related incidents were due to possession for personal use according to the Central Statistics Office. These were mainly dealt with fines and suspended sentences though data shows that just under 600 people were imprisoned for drug offences in 2019. Natalie states these figures alone demonstrate the increase in personal use and with it, the increase in criminal penalties. The Garda Adult Caution Scheme was introduced in 2006 which affords the guards to caution an individual as it wouldn’t be in the public interest to prosecute. While personal possession was originally included in the list of offences, it was removed before the scheme was implemented.
Criminalisation has yet to prove itself as a deterrent as drug users are overrepresented in the prison system. Prohibition also fails to reduce drug use and the harms associated with it as the War on Drugs has been exposed as a farce over the last 2 decades. Natalie expands on the international perspective on cannabis which was defined at the 1925 Opium Convention. It had officially become a prohibited drug which has led many countries to share similar laws concerning the governance of cannabis. This stigmatised drug use further, leading us to today where a regulated drug market to address the health risks is now advocated by those who once wanted a drug free world. There was little change in attitudes from the 1998 General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to the one held in 2016 but now there is a new outlook on drug abuse prevention as countries began to shift from criminalisation to harm reduction with the United Nations highlighting the unintended consequences of criminalisation.
The attitude towards drug use has shifted with the introduction of harm reduction principles as treatment alternatives have now taken priority. There are many differences in opinion on harm reduction with critics citing it as a “trojan horse”, nevertheless, many do not support the same views when it comes to the argument of decriminalisation vs reform. This leads us to the crux of Natalie’s dissertation where Portugal’s model has led the gold standard in harm reduction since 2001. Portugal ended penalties for those caught with cannabis for personal use, which has led to an increase in life expectancy and wellbeing for many. A commission comprised of doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and social activists have ensured an educated, well-informed discussion on drug laws which has led Portugal to the model we should be all be envious of. The decriminalisation of personal possession of licit drugs has led to a health centred approach to drug policy as drug possession is now seen as an administrative violation resulting in a fine and recommended treatment as opposed to imprisonment.
Following on, Natalie expands on the Drugs Discussion Commission that saw legal experts, doctors, and social workers distanced themselves from the court system. They opted for a system where an individual will be handed a suspended sentence if they agree to undergo treatment. This was brought forward with heroin addicts in mind, but it is cannabis users who have benefited most. This has resulted in eliminating stigma while encouraging health and treatment plans.
Natalie continues, delineating Portugal’s reformed drug laws which were quick to expose the fictitious bogeyman of addiction as in the wake of reform, there was no increase in drug use. In fact, it had declined with no rise in drug tourism which had been a fear for many detractors and resulted in a lower E.U average of drug use. Drug offences dropped which afforded Portugal to now address most of the social harms associated with drug use by offering treatment-based solutions for which demand had increased exponentially. Despite the success, Natalie notes the reform still faced criticism. Despite the positives, there was concern regarding the amount of investment needed to have any major impact and its success relied heavily on a commitment to provide the tools needed for drug users to gain help. Data showing decriminalisation didn’t ease drug trade was the main point of contention for opponents though the goal of reform wasn’t to tackle the black market but to provide health alternatives to those who needed them most. The predominant worry was that without a deterrent, drug use would increase and become more socially acceptable for others to abuse. This wasn’t the case as Natalie notes drug use actually increased under prohibition, while community engagement and employment flourished under decriminalisation. There was little belief that Portugal would succeed with their proposal but 20 years later, that clearly is not the case as the investment of social and health supports have proven effective.
By addressing and combating the stigma, Portugal has shown the world the benefits of removing it. Natalie then moves onto stigma as a whole where social supports have been key in removing criminal sanctions as criminalisation had shown to maximize the harm of drug use. Natalie sheds light on the Them vs Us mentality stemming from society’s categorization of drug users as “outsiders” which coincides with the narrative that drug users are criminals and must be treated as such in the justice system. How the criminal justice system processes these “outsiders” has negative consequences for the individual as Natalie states punishment and stigmatisation increases the probability of repeat drug offences. This comes full circle with the societal mentality that stems from the criminal justice system classifying drug users as weak-willed addicts.
Natalie delves further into this mindset as labelling establishes how people will be viewed in society. The younger a person is when they come in contact with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to join a gang or at the very least, offend again. This facilitates divide and pushes people towards criminality. The fear of rejection due to the stereotyping of drug users makes it easy to place blame on the individual which impacts their prospects. Natalie then focuses on how employment establishes a new social identity for a person but if they have a conviction to their name, the process of being hired becomes a major hurdle. If we were to remove the power of the criminal label, we remove the stigma.
This is compounded by how unprepared health professionals are in treating addiction as Natalie expands on the barrier of attitudes pharmacy staff unconsciously emit towards those who want to seek help. This, along with the internalised stigma leads people to conceal their drug use and decide against seeking help due to low self-esteem and self-image. This is further intensified by the isolation and self-hatred many instil within themselves due to how the stigma affects them, which finds people seeking “social shelter” within the shackles of drug abuse. Those that do make the leap to seek treatment are usually hindered from completing it due to this stigma. By seeking treatment, you announce to the world you have a problem and for many, this is a major obstacle. By destigmatising these stereotypes, we prevent this barrier from forming as Portugal successfully achieved leading to an increased demand for treatment by 147%.
Natalie maintains that promoting health and wellbeing is the key to tackling drug abuse as the strategy is pointless if decriminalisation isn’t ratified. Recovery and rehabilitation are the appropriate services needed where the focus will be put on the needs of the person. Natalie acknowledges that localised and community-based treatment options should be available, though currently, access is limited as GPs are less likely to accept drug users as clients. With a focus on addiction education, compassion will improve among health professionals. This, along with a regulated drug education initiative for the most vulnerable will outline the dangers of drug abuse as shock tactics haven’t proven to be as effective as many say. Portugal has demonstrated it is possible to achieve this as they now have comprehensive education based on the principle that drug users are not criminals.
Portugal has shown that decriminalisation has reduced the fear the general public has towards drug users with people now more likely to encourage users to obtain assistance. Even if an individual seeks treatment, the stigmatisation of social integration can undermine the progress made during drug treatment. Natalie rounds off her thesis by focusing on the need for family engagement, community action and addressing the attitudes and perceptions of the public whilst promoting education of harm reduction which Portugal has shown to be a successful path in combatting drug addiction. We can’t rely on the criminal justice system as the stigma label associated with its proceedings has shown to be ineffective. Natalie O’Regan’s Blunt Trauma – Effective Stigma on Cannabis Users and Why We Need to Decriminalise Personal Possession in Ireland is a comprehensive view of the current landscape of drug use, addiction, and treatment with Portugal’s success story at the helm. Probation has failed and the War on Drugs has stumbled to the finish line with nothing to show for it. With a change in mindset and an onus put on understanding addiction, we may find ourselves benefiting from the same system that affords Portugal to care for its people regardless of the stigmas or judgement that have enveloped the issue.