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What Ireland can learn from Oregon’s voter u-turn on drugs

Last month, the Citizens’ Assembly published a list of 36 recommendations on drug use. One of the main recommendations made by the Assembly was the legalisation of drugs for personal use, something advocates including TDs Gino Kenny and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin say will stop the stigmatisation of drug users — and bring an end to Ireland’s ‘failed’ drug policy.

Other recommendations included the adoption of a ‘health-led’ approach to personal drug use, with the Assembly claiming this would reduce the harm caused by illicit drugs. The approach recommended a move away from criminality – with those found in possession of illicit drugs for personal use set to be afforded, first and foremost, opportunities to engage voluntarily with health-led services over criminalisation.

The Assembly further recommended investment in mental health services in communities, addiction treatment services in prisons, and more funding for prevention programmes.

Commenting, Chair of the Assembly, Paul Reid, said there was “no time to waste” in making the recommendations a legal reality.

“The State needs to take a far more progressive, ambitious, comprehensive and coherent approach to drugs use in Ireland,” he said.

“The Assembly recommendations call for significant change to how drugs issues are dealt with, including by the political system, by the criminal justice and health systems, and by the community and voluntary organisations providing supports across the country,” he added.

There is a sense of déjà vu, then, when you read back on the news reports from two years ago, as Oregon became the first State in the U.S. to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of hard drugs – in favour of an emphasis on addiction treatment. 

When measure 110 was passed in Oregon, it received the backing of 58% of voters. While the law differs from what is being proposed here, in that it decriminalised all drugs, supporters of the law made almost identical arguments to the most staunch supporters of drug decriminalisation in Ireland currently – that what was being adopted was a novel, compassionate approach which would transform addiction by removing the long shadow of criminal penalties for drug use, and instead focus on recovery.

Yet, what looked like the emergence of a promising new dawn for progressives in Oregon, was not so. Three years on, a recent Emerson poll has shown a shift in public opinion – with 56 per cent of voters now backing a repeal of the law that made the decriminalisation of even illicit drugs possible.

One of the illuminating findings of Oregon’s decriminalisation experiment, as it relates to Ireland, is that only a small amount of the addicts who were given “tickets” for drug offences (rather than what would have been jail time), progress into rehabilitation. Most are not interested in treatment – and prefer to take the $100 fine.

In the first year of the law coming into force, a mere 1% of people who received citations for possession actually looked for help via the hotline, according to state auditors.

A study, published in May, interviewed 23 police officers and sheriff’s deputies in three urban and three rural counties in Oregon along with his team. It found, according to co-author Christopher Campbell, a professor at Portland University, that police officers were “largely skeptical” about measure 110’s ability to motivate drug users to actually seek treatment.

“So, as a result, they’re hesitant to actually provide the citations that Measure 110 requires them to do,” Prof Campbell, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, commenting on the findings, said.

What indication is there that the Irish would be any more willing to avail of voluntary help? Where is the incentive to seek treatment?

Those on the ground also say that while Measure 110 was supposed to facilitate more rehabilitation, there is not sufficient infrastructure to support this. There is concern, too, that Oregon’s liberal experiment may also be bringing in addicts from elsewhere, with the State now having difficulties under a pressure that is difficult to sustain.

John Horvick, vice president of the polling firm DHM Research, said that “the inability for people to live their day-to-day life without encountering open-air drug use is so pressing on urban folks’ minds,” – and that this is something which has very much changed people’s perspective about what they think Measure 110 is.”

Advocates for decriminalisation in Oregon, echoing the Irish lobby, have pointed to Portugal, which decriminalised drugs back in 2001, as a model to aspire to. A group of lawmakers from the State recently travelled there to learn more about Portuguese policy, under which all drugs,  including marijuana, cocaine and heroin, were decriminalised. 

The Citizens’ Assembly also recommended “an Irish version of the Portuguese model.” 

Portugal has been hailed almost universally for decriminalising drugs, and held up as a blueprint to inspire similar efforts in Ireland and in the US. 

But we should not rely too heavily on the Portuguese model, or bat away questions by duly pointing to the ‘success’ of Portuguese legislation. 

After all, a rise in crime in cities like Porto, where people openly smoke crack pots and inject heroin, is being attributed to a spike in the number of people using drugs. 

A report this past summer from The Washington Post details how the country is having second thoughts – as “addiction multiplies.”

Portugal, hailed as an aspiration to Ireland, has, similarly to Oregon, seen a lack of appetite for rehabilitation treatment, with the numbers seeking help having “fallen dramatically.”

“The return in force of visible urban drug use, meanwhile, is leading the mayor and others here to ask an explosive question: Is it time to reconsider this country’s globally hailed drug model?” The Washington Post reports.

According to the WP, Portuguese police cite urban visibility of the country’s drug problem being at the worst point it has been for decades, while the state funded NGOs responsible for providing care for those with addiction are “less concerned with treatment than affirming that lifetime drug use should be seen as a human right.”

Porto’s mayor, Rui Moreira, shows us that there is a warning to be found in Portugal’s case after all, despite the glowing endorsements of the Portuguese case study from so many Irish progressives.

“These days in Portugal, it is forbidden to smoke tobacco outside a school or a hospital,” he points out. “It is forbidden to advertise ice cream and sugar candies. And yet, it is allowed for [people] to be there, injecting drugs — We’ve normalised it.”

As is the case with lots of things, legalisation leads to increase, and ultimately, normalisation. A national study out of Portugal in recent months suggests the number of adults who have used hard drugs have climbed – from 7.8 per cent in 2001, to 12.8 per cent last year.

While a landmark report from 2009 backed the case for decriminalisation, stating: “None of the parade of horrors that decriminalisation opponents in Portugal predicted, and that decriminalisation opponents around the world typically invoke, has come to pass,” it seems some of the repercussions have now caught up with Portugal.

Overdose rates are at a 12-year high in the country – almost doubling in Lisbon between 2019 and 2023. Crime was up 14 per cent from 2021 to 2022, a surge that police have attributed, at least partly, to drugs. 

All of this has led to the very real possibility of pushback. 

“But in the first substantial way since decriminalisation passed, some Portuguese voices are now calling for a rethink of a policy that was long a proud point of national consensus,” the WP reports. That is significant.

Neither Portugal, nor Oregon, should serve as an example to Ireland. Rather, they may just strengthen the case for performing a swift u-turn while we still have the chance.

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A Call for Honesty
7 days ago

How many of those with the loudest voices calling for the de . . . . sation of d . . . s will choose to live in areas with the highest d . . g use or not object to the area where they live being overrun by d . . g users and pushers?
I suspect few if any.

Ray McIntyre
7 days ago

Very informative analysis

In the light of his recent political statements, would you vote for Conor McGregor if he ran for election?

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