The Green Party, Social Democrats & Drugs

The Green Party‘s manifesto, Towards 2030: A Decade of Change, opens its page on drug policy with a promising summary of affairs: ‘The criminalisation of drug consumption is a counter-productive policy that perpetuates business models of organised crime and fails to address the public health impact of drugs. A more compassionate policy based on international best practice can be introduced within existing constraints under international law‘. They say they’ll introduce reforms that move drug policy away from a criminal justice approach, into one of public health. Some reforms include ‘removing criminal penalties for possessing less than a week’s supply of a scheduled drug‘, ‘pardoning and releasing non-violent, minor, drug offenders‘ and ‘allowing medically-supervised safe injection facilities‘ (in accordance with what the Minister for Health deems appropriate). Sadly, none of these reforms have been seen yet. As with the other parties I’ve covered recently (along with the Social Democrats), they support a dual diagnosis system, ‘so that the health system can address issues behind drug abuse‘.

More stated reforms include ‘rescheduling cannabis and its derivatives from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule IV drug‘ and ‘decriminalising the possession of small quantities of cannabis products and plants‘. These goals have not been realised either. The nearest thing we have to that last reform mentioned is a half-hearted measure that was implemented in mid-December last year, where being caught with a small amount of cannabis for the first time can mean a warning in place of criminal prosecution. Receiving that adult caution isn’t a given. It’s at the discretion of the Garda at the scene, who decides what constitutes a small, personal amount. While the Greens have also published a more comprehensive drug policy document online, this looks to have originally been published online in August 2019 (see the URL), with edits made as recently as September this year.

I’m not going to outline that document in this post, but it includes interesting proposals like a Dutch-style tolerance system for coffeeshops (which strangely, would not allow edibles), decriminalising possession of under four plants on private properties, and advocating a domestic cultivation sector for hemp and cannabis. The Social Democrats Invest in Better manifesto first discusses drugs on page 22, where the party states an intention to restore the funding for drug and alcohol task forces to pre-austerity levels. Under Tackle Addiction and Substance Abuse, they sensibly summarise their view on drugs and addiction: ‘We understand that addiction requires a health-based approach, with a focus on harm-reduction and prevention based on international best practice. We need a holistic approach to tackling the issue of drugs in Ireland, taking both health and socio-economic factors into account‘. Various points are listed, such as the introduction of drug-testing facilities across the country, ‘ensuring they are present at festivals and areas with high concentrations of night life‘. This would certainly reduce a lot of tragic, unnecessary deaths.

Others mention the need for medically-supervised SIFs (Safe Injection Facilities) and for strengthened Joint Policing Committees, to ensure that Councils and Local Area Committees can hold meetings with Garda representatives about how best to address issues such as low-level drug dealing. The Soc Dems express an interest in decriminalising small amounts of drugs for personal use, ‘in line with the Portuguese model‘. It’s shocking in this day and age that all Irish political parties aren’t suggesting this, at the bare minimum. Like Fine Gael, the Social Democrats would like to expand pre and post-natal substance addiction supports. Uniquely among the manifestos I’ve covered, this one specifically states an intention to expand the availability of anti-overdose drugs. A strong emphasis on increased availability of drugs like Naloxone should be a priority for all parties by now. Such drugs are an invaluable addition to harm reduction efforts, as they can bring someone who has overdosed back from the brink of death.

Keeping in mind everything the Social Democrats said in this manifesto, it is laughable that they seem to have cowered away from taking a stance on the subject of cannabis, specifically. Below is a screenshot showing about three quarters of page 24. One line about supporting medicinal cannabis via prescription, followed by blank space for the remainder of the page.

It’s as though someone was considering a more in-depth page about the party’s thoughts on cannabis, before thinking: ‘No, we’re better off not demonstrating too much vision here’. I suppose they saw it as rocking the boat a little much, so they backed out of making any bold proclamations on weed. Don’t get me wrong though, overall, the Social Democrats seem to have their heads screwed on right in terms of advancing progressive drug policies.

With everything said and done, there are political parties in Ireland who show some intention of taking baby steps toward ending prohibition [see Labour, for example, with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s #DECRIM campaign]. But none seem willing to outright express the need for society to do away with prohibition, the root cause of a majority of evils connected to black market drugs and drug abuse. Until that time comes, it seems we’ll have to put up with continued false promises of ‘tackling’ drug-related crime and magically eradicating illegal drug use. The 2020 election manifestos featured on this blog pointed to various modest improvements to our nation’s drug policies, but the reality is that next to nothing has been done by any of those parties since. In this day and age, that is an unacceptable lack of progress for a supposedly modern country, and it is time for everyone who wants to see these changes made to make their voices heard.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil & Drugs

The opening line of the drug policy section in Fine Gael‘s GE20 Manifesto proudly ends with an emphasis on more of the same: ‘continuing the relentless pursuit of drug dealers.‘ This is a clear sign that they just don’t get it. How does Fine Gael not know by now that the 50-year-old global war on drugs is a proven failure? The second line develops on their commitment to doing more of the same, by saying they’ll reduce crime and rebuild lives by continuing with the current National Drugs Strategy. They say they’ll utilise ‘key law enforcement strategies to protect people from the harm of illegal drugs‘, seemingly oblivious to the fact that legal regulation is the only real way to eradicate most harms linked to illegal drugs, for good! The dogs on the street can see that drug prohibition causes ever-worsening damage to our society. If drugs were regulated, it would remove the total control of the market that’s currently enjoyed by violent organised crime gangs.

Wording is important. While mentioning the need for awareness programmes in schools, they utilise the tired old phrasing of ‘drug and alcoholmisuse. When phrased like this, it appears to imply that alcohol doesn’t really count as a potentially dangerous substance, unlike black market drugs! This makes it seem less worthy of concern, when in fact, alcohol is believed to be the most dangerous intoxicating substance there is. Fine Gael say they intend to open a ‘pilot medically supervised injecting facility in Dublin City‘, but thanks to a recent High Court decision, that has not been able to happen yet. Irish governments have been talking about opening Ireland’s first SIF (safe injection facility) since 2016. Fine Gael in particular don’t seem to be making much progress with getting this over the line, given the fact that they’ve been in power since 2011.

They plan to ‘expand services available’ to pregnant and post-natal women affected by substance use, as well as their children, but they don’t bother detailing which services will be expanded in what way. Like Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, they say they’ll develop a dual diagnosis programme for people who suffer from both addiction and mental illness, who often can’t access adequate care. They state their support for harm reduction (you know, resources like safe injection facilities!) and education campaigns surrounding drug awareness, but bafflingly they also mention ‘the contribution of drugs to criminality‘, offhand. This suggests that using drugs will always lead to addiction and by extension criminality, which for the vast majority of drug users is a ridiculous notion. Fianna Fáil state that ‘complacency on drug policy has allowed more problems to take root‘, without a shred of irony, in their Manifesto. That’s something we can all agree on, regardless of your stance on Irish drug laws!

One of their goals is said to be a ‘justice system that is fit for purpose and commands public trust‘. Arresting a 58-year-old woman for 2.5 grams of weed is probably not a great way of maintaining public trust. Especially when one considers the fact that various public polls about cannabis or drug legalisation in the media have been strongly in favour of decriminalisation or legalisation! Let’s not forget the other stories of shameful treatment in our courts that have emerged over the last year-plus. As with Sinn Féin‘s manifesto, Fianna Fáil aim to have a ‘16,000 strong’ Garda force. They inform us of their intention to improve the Gardaí and their resources, across the board. They continue to show zero self-awareness with this summary of illegal drugs in Ireland: ‘Sadly, towns all over Ireland have massive drug problems with illegal drugs being sold, bought and injected openly on our streets and on public transport. Gangland criminals are operating with contempt for law and order and are destroying the fabric of communities‘.

There’s a universal solution to vastly improve many of these issues which we’ve mentioned ad nauseum on this blog. It’s one enormous elephant in the room, staring all political parties right in the face. And yet, it seems that the imagination and leadership needed to sort this mess out is just not present at Dáil Éireann. They go on to mention more measures intended to curb drug-related crime and to lessen the damage caused by black market drugs – increased funding for drugs taskforces, ‘fully’ implementing the National Drugs Strategy, and strengthening international policing ties to help fight organised crime across Europe. The two main parties in power may feel that their largely status quo efforts are good enough for ‘tackling’ illegal drugs, but it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that this is not the case.

Sinn Féin, People Before Profit & Drugs

According to the Party’s 2020 Manifesto, Sinn Féin believe that drug ‘and alcohol’ misuse (can we please start including alcohol under the umbrella of ‘drugs’?) are primarily public health issues. Harm reduction is stated to be a guiding principle for future ‘drug and alcohol’ strategies for Sinn Féin, but then so is ‘prevention’, which suggests that they still hold a mainly prohibitionist stance when it comes to drugs. Moving on from this, they make the very important point that mental health and addiction are almost exclusively treated as separate conditions in Ireland. They mention how currently some people seeking mental health care are being refused that care due to an existing issue with, or even a history of substance abuse’. They talk of how harms in society ‘by drugs’ and the criminal gangs that control their distribution must be tackled, which to me looks like Sinn Féin don’t appear to fundamentally understand the root cause of virtually all drug-related woes in Irish society – prohibition resulting in unregulated, unpredictable, and unsafe black market drugs! Notably, among their list of priorities in terms of drugs is a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy, to ensure that nobody is refused treatment because of an addiction.

I would sincerely hope that no medical professional in this day and age would turn someone away without some form of treatment when they’re in need, just because they’re a drug user. It feels strange that this should have to be introduced as legislation, but it highlights the stigma that’s still faced by drug users in Ireland. Alongside this, Sinn Féin importantly suggest amending existing legislation surrounding the dual diagnosis of mental health and addiction. They suggest investing an extra 12 million euro in drug task forces and the national drug strategy, as well as dramatically ramping up recruits for An Garda Síochána, bringing their numbers to over 16,000. This, to me, sounds a bit like throwing money at a problem and hoping it’ll go away. The reality is that people will always use drugs, the illegal drugs supply will never go away and drugs will remain dangerously unpredictable so long as gangsters are in control of an unregulated illegal supply.

I could not find a 2020 Manifesto document on the People Before Profit website, but they did have separate policy documents available, including one on drugs policy. Although this file was created five months after last year’s February election, I’m assuming that it’s fairly unchanged overall from the drugs policy they published prior to it. Among the bullet points on their opening summary page is ‘Education to replace criminalisation as a method of deterrence’. This seems to be in line with Gino Kenny‘s proposed Bill on cannabis legalisation, which is expected to be introduced in Dáil Éireann next month.

Crucially for harm reduction, PBP mention the establishment of safe injection rooms, pill testing centres, and a State body to scientifically examine drugs that people take socially. In addition, they suggest highly regulated and supervised State-run distribution services (i.e. needle exchange programmes), which to me would make a lot of sense. ‘A move towards the Portuguese Model to undermine criminal gangs‘ is stated as an aim, which is a significant step down from Gino’s aim of full legalisation. I’m not really sure how decriminalisation would undermine organised crime gangs, because after all, they would retain total control of the drug supply in that scenario. I wish Irish political Parties in general were more courageous about having the conversation about full legalisation, rather than aiming only for the half measure that is decriminalisation.

PBP rightly mention allowing medicinal cannabis use for chronic pain conditions; countless people suffering with chronic pain can attest to its importance in their lives. As has been the norm in Irish politics they don’t dare to mention non-medicinal use, which is underwhelming in my view, given all the scientific data globally that shows that legal recreational weed is perfectly safe and reasonable. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that some people argue that all use of cannabis is medicinal, regardless of whether it has been labelled recreational or not, and they are welcome to hold that opinion. Ending page one, PBP say: ‘Criminalising drug users is a failed approach. People Before Profit favours a healthcare approach to drug taking and education rather than criminalisation.’ They proceed to explain how the current system of policing of drug users is inequitable in the sense that people from poorer communities are monitored, sentenced and punished more often and more severely than others are. They also point to how students in schools are educated very poorly about drugs, where among other things, cannabis is still said to be a good ol’ fashioned gateway drug.

Vitally, People Before Profit discuss the need to closely monitor and regulate the influence and power of large corporations from the pharmaceutical, alcohol and cigarette industries, so that they won’t unfairly dominate future legalised drugs industries, or obscure any concerning information which may arise regarding effects on health.

Meglio Tardi Che Mai

‘Better late than never’. Nicholas looks at the recent news of Italian drug reform where next year, Italy will host a referendum on whether its citizens will be allowed to grow cannabis plants for personal use.

Italy is set to become the first European country to allow its citizens to personally grow up to four cannabis plants in their homes.  This comes after reform was approved by the lower houses’ justice committee on Wednesday the 8th of September. It states that the growth of up to four female cannabis plants at home is to be decriminalised in a decision that puts Italy at the focal point of European cannabis legislation.  Conversely, the reform has increased the penalties for crimes linked to the trafficking and dealing of cannabis from up to six to ten years.  This is a major development in cannabis reform as Italian politicians look to give their citizens more control in the matter.

The nationwide referendum is set to take place early next year in what many hope will cause a domino effect across Europe.  While it’s wishful thinking to assume the reform will pass, it is looking likely that it will with 57% of Italians expected to vote in favour of the referendum. As seen in the U.S the proposal will induce a myriad of financial and economic benefits with Italy’s market for recreational consumption worth close to €8 billion, as estimated by Piero David of the National Research Council.  Once legalised and taxed at the proposed 75% (similar to cigarettes), it is looking to add €6 billion a year to Italy’s economy with much of it coming from the savings incurred from fewer trials and jail detentions.  As it stands, cannabis is legal for recreational use in small quantities and consumption for medicinal purposes is allowed.  However, the selling and production of the plant is illegal.  The petition for a referendum called for the abolition of the Presidential Decree n.309 from 1990, essentially eradicating all cannabis-related criminal penalties.

The petition was significantly driven by online signatories, following a recent law that now allows people to sign through a digital platform, and as a result the internet and digital stratosphere now have an increasingly powerful impact on policy areas.  Due to a judge’s ruling amidst the covid pandemic, the petition was allowed to collect signatures online for the first time in Italian history and so the 5,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum on the issue was reached.  The Italian government holds the production monopoly for legal use but cannot meet the demand as medical consumption alone rose 30% in 2020. 

By allowing new producers to deliver cannabis for multiple uses, 35,000 new jobs will be created according to supporters of the reform.  It’s not far from reality as American jobs linked to the legal cannabis industry doubled to 321,000 in 3 years according to cannabis marketplace Leafly. Italy looks to also gain an edge in the stock market as Canada’s 2018 legalisation of recreational cannabis prompted an initial public offering frenzy, but this has yet to be seen in Europe.  Having private use openly legal would give Borsa Italiana (the Italian stock exchange) an advantage over others in the European markets.  Antonella Soldo, a coordinator of Meglio Legale, a non-profit organization fighting for drug decriminalisation said:

“It will be hard for institutions and big parties to ignore us.  The extraordinary response of hundreds of thousands of people who have signed the petition in the span of a few hours proves just how important this topic is. If the yes side wins, we’ll start working towards a necessary reform programme.  All cannabis-related penalties would be removed, cultivation would no longer be a crime, and the most common sanction to date – the revocation of driving licences – would be abolished.”

If the campaign succeeds, Italy will be on par with the likes of the Netherlands and Spain, with one of the most liberal cannabis legislation in Europe.  This has still resulted in pushback from conservatives that see it as a threat to the country’s social fabric and are looking to fight the movement.  From the recent reform in America, experience shows once a state legalises cannabis, the economic rewards are felt by all in a domino effect that has benefited America as a whole. With Italy being the first to take the plunge, we can only hope it has a similar effect on Europe where neighbouring countries can no longer sit back and watch a fellow E.U member rake in the benefits of what many would consider to be a public health initiative.  Cannabis use is more prevalent than ever and by subverting the black market in favour of a regulated industry that provides citizens choice.