Novas supports decriminalisation of drugs for personal use

Decriminalisation of drugs for personal use – a briefing note


Novas was the first homeless organization in Ireland to use the model of harm reduction to work with homeless people in Limerick and the proposed legislative change around decriminalising personal drug use (with clear specifications re amount) aligns closely with our core values.

At the core of all Novas services is a belief in harm reduction, our training is focused on that model of work and our success to-date has largely been in setting up services using the harm reduction model to work with groups of people that other services could not – primarily because they did not practise harm reduction. Novas considers decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, one further step in the harm reduction model that allows people who use drugs to access services safely and compassionately without the shadow of the judicial system preventing them from doing so. Decriminalisation sits comfortably with other key harm reduction practices supported by government, i.e. needle exchanges, safe injecting centres, roll out of naloxone, etc.

Novas services

Should decriminalisation of drugs for personal use be introduced in Ireland, it means primarily that those who use drugs problematically to the extent they become homeless, will be mandated to access health services should they be found by the Gardai to have drugs on their person. Drugs will remain illegal as will drug dealing – however the act of carrying some for personal use will not command an automatic fine/ court summons / prison sentence. The most recent stats tell us that 75% of drug cases before the courts are for simple possession (person use/small quantity) and in 2016, there were 11,486 convictions for personal possession, resulting in those persons all having a criminal conviction which could be potentially life changing/damaging for them restricting their ability to travel, work, access finance, etc.

Secondly this change will enable Novas to provide safer places of work for its staff. The decriminalisation of drugs for personal use will create a safer and more health focused relationship between staff and clients, where drug consumption can be discussed more openly. It is our belief, based on years of practice, that when people are faced with non-punitive measures for their drug use, they do not fear open discussions around their usage, educational opportunities or opportunities for engagement, thus ultimately improving outcomes. Novas has evidenced this time and time again through our Heads Up research, the TOPPLE programme, our engagement and roll out of the Naloxone Programme in all our STA services, our support of expanded Dual Diagnosis services in the Mid-West, the establishment of the Community Detox in the Mid-West alongside many other harm reduction initiatives.

Over the past 16 years of offering services to those homeless due in no small part to addiction, we have seen first-hand that addiction for many people is as a result of early childhood trauma. According to Lambert 2017, “addiction and trauma holding a dual diagnosis position is not in any way ground-breaking. Back et al., (2008) found that two thirds of people seeking treatment for substance use disorders report one or more traumatic life events while Jacobsen et al., (2001) found that up to 75% of clients presenting with addiction have comorbid histories of trauma.”

What does decriminalisation mean?

Whilst drug use is a health issue, it is extremely important to recognise it as a poverty issue and a class issue. Many of those that access Novas services were introduced to drugs in the first instance because of the environment they grew up in. There is much evidence to support this and the chain that leads a higher concentration of the population from socially and economically deprived areas to engage more heavily in early-school leaving, teen pregnancy, anti-social behaviour, early contact with the courts and prison services and introduction to drug use. Ultimately drug use will be most impacted by anti-poverty measures and polices rooted in equity and accessibility for all. However for the purposes of this paper, Novas welcomes decriminalisation for personal use as a useful measure in destigmatising those caught up in problematic drug use and encouraging them to access health services at the first signs of a problem.
It is important to note that drug dependence is not unique to low income areas or areas categorised as socially marginalised or deprived. Drug dependence is a social issue that effects all strata of society – however its impact is more severely felt in areas where people cannot afford the penalties imposed, cannot afford a rehabilitation service and where those who remain dependent spend more (if not all) of their income to acquire drugs, which in turn leads to further social issues; such as family estrangement, children in care, homelessness, etc.

Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation – it simply removes the criminal penalties for personal use / possession. Under decriminalisation, there is no legal means to obtain drugs for personal use and if a person is caught with drugs on their person for their own use, it is likely the drugs will be confiscated by the guards. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) defines decriminalisation as when the status of a criminal offence is reclassified as non-criminal. When we talk about decriminalisation, we are talking about the offence of drug use or drug possession for personal use, not supply offences (such as manufacture, wholesale supply or trafficking).
So although possession of illegal drugs for personal use will remain prohibited and will be stopped by police, it will not be treated as a criminal offence.
This approach has been adopted by many other countries in the world as a way of addressing high levels of problem use. The Portuguese Model is the most cited model highlighting the success of decriminalisation.

Government approach

There is strong public support for decriminalisation of drugs for personal use in Ireland, clearly echoed in Governments latest drugs strategy. It is worth noting that the UN and the WHO have all called for decriminalisation of drugs for personal use. In its Programme for Partnership, published in May 2016, the new government pledged we (govt.) will support a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drug use including legislating for injection rooms. It should be noted that in the election which preceded the formation of the government, almost all political parties committed to a health–led approach to drugs in their manifestos.

While the Irish government has begun to engage in the debate on decriminalisation in recent years, the origins of the debate in Ireland date back more 20 years when civil society first began to have discussions on the option. Furthermore it is civil society organisations that have led and shaped the debate in the intervening years. However In April 2015, the call for a public debate on decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use received the formal support of an Irish government for the first time, when Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was appointed to the position of Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy. In his first public appearance as Minister for Drugs, Ó Ríordáin announced his personal support for decriminalisation, calling for drug use to be treated as a ‘health issue’ and he set out his intention to have an open and honest debate on the issues.

In July 2015, Minister Ó Ríordáin led a think-tank discussion with all stakeholders in the National Drug Strategy, including government departments, statutory agencies, community and voluntary sector representatives (in which Novas took part through our representation on the Mid West Regional Drug and Alcohol Forum) and Drugs Task Forces, which reached agreement to examine the issue in more detail. Also in 2015, following an initial inquiry into gangland crime in Ireland, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defense and Equality focused specifically on decriminalisation as a policy option, sending a delegation to Portugal to examine that jurisdiction’s approach in more detail. The Committee’s final report strongly recommended the introduction of ‘a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach, whereby the possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use, could be dealt with by way of a civil/administrative response and rather than via the criminal justice route’.

In November of last year, current Junior Minister with responsibility for the NDS- Catherine Byrne, set up a Working Group to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. All Irish citizens were entitled to contribute to the consultation which closed in July of this year. The membership of the Working Group, which will be chaired by Judge Garrett Sheehan, will be drawn from the Department of Health, Department of Justice and Equality, Health Service Executive, Health Research Board, An Garda Síochána, The Probation Service, Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, people with lived experience of using drugs and an academic expert. The findings of this Working Group are expected to be returned to government by the end of 2018.

Evidence from Portugal

International evidence indicates that decriminalisation reduces the overall costs to the State. When the Oireachtas Justice Committee visited services in Portugal in 2015, they found that whilst programmes could add to the cost of specific healthcare engagements, the experience in Portugal has actually resulted in a reduction in costs to the State overall. Portugal decriminalised the use of illegal drugs in 2001, a move which experts have said has led to a ‘spectacular’ reduction in the number of infections among intravenous users and a significant drop in drug-related crimes.

The change in law that became active on July 1 2001 in Portugal, did not legalise drug use, but forced those caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court. The panels are made up of psychologists, judges and social workers who recommend actions based on the specifics of each case. Since then, government panels have recommended a response based largely on whether the individual is an occasional drug user or drug dependent. Portugal’s reforms have not been limited to treating drug possession as an administrative offense; they also include a wide range of measures such as prevention and social education, discouraging people from further use of controlled substances, harm reduction approaches, early and appropriate treatment options for drug dependent people, and importantly assistance in reintegrating former drug dependent people back into society.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has said that the evidence coming from Portugal highlights that the country has dealt with the issue of problematic drug use ‘in a pragmatic and innovative way’.

In addition to the removal of a criminal penalty for possession for personal use, those found with drugs for personal use were provided with therapy rather than prison sentences. Research commissioned by the Cato Institute and led by Glenn Greenwald found that in the five years after the start of decriminalisation; illegal drug use by teenagers declined, the rate of HIV infections among drug users dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction had doubled. Even the most critical observers have identified that whilst drug use can rise and fall due to a variety of factors – decriminalisation in Portugal has met its central goal-drug use did not continue to rise once the law was changed.


In delivering the National Drugs Strategy- ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery 2017-2025’, the government recognises the evidence that health and social outcomes for individuals who use drugs are improved by addressing them through the health system rather than the criminal justice system. Novas fully supports this process of seeking alternative approaches to possession of illegal drugs for personal use. Novas supports all social inclusion models that increase the accessibility of housing, health and recovery services for those that are homeless and marginalised in our society.

Current legislation penalises those most vulnerable in our society, who we believe use drugs to emotionally regulate traumatic experiences. Equally it reinforces the stigma and shame experienced by our client group. Criminal convictions impede and in many cases deny housing, employment and education opportunities into the future.
Given that Ireland has the fourth highest rate of overdose in Europe we need to continue to advocate for change and at all times support people with drug dependence using a health and humanitarian led approach rather than a punitive one.