Possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use should be treated as health problem, rather than a criminal issue, says President of Irish Pharmacy Union

7 May 2017: Possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use should be treated as a health problem rather than a criminal issue, the President of the Irish Pharmacy Union, Mr Daragh Connolly, told the organisation’s National Pharmacy Conference in Croke Park yesterday. He said that people with drug problems should be given the same level of care as people with other health issues.

Proposing a motion to this effect, he said that “addressing the drug problem in Ireland is a balancing act between preventing illicit use of drugs and associated health problems and ensuring access to treatment for those addicted to drugs. The World Health Organisation has acknowledged that people with drug disorders deserve the same level of care as patients with any other health condition. Health services need to be able to identify drug use and drug use disorders at an early stage and provide prevention, treatment and harm reduction interventions.”

Mr Connolly, a community pharmacist in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, said that, for people who are not yet dependent on drugs, efforts should focus on preventing dependence and reducing the harm associated with drug use. “For people suffering from drug dependence, health systems have to provide access to comprehensive treatment, including psychosocial support, pharmacotherapy and the prevention and management of associated health problems such as HIV, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, mental health disorders and drug overdose.”

He said he welcomed the recent enactment of the Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Act to provide for the establishment, licensing, operation and regulation of supervised injecting facilities for the purposes of reducing harm to people who inject drugs; to enhance the dignity, health and wellbeing of people who inject drugs in public places; to reduce the incidence of drug injection and drug-related litter in public places and, thereby, to enhance the public amenity for the wider community.

“Pharmacists should be at the vanguard of this changing approach. We already provide opiate substitution using methadone; we provide needle exchange services in areas of need; we provide a crucial point of contact with healthcare for those whose problems have made them outsiders in our society. We want to do more,” he said.

Seconding the motion, Ms Kathy Maher, former IPU President and a community pharmacist in Duleek, Co. Meath, welcomed the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in its Report of the Committee on a Harm Reducing and Rehabilitative Approach to Possession of Small Amounts of Illegal Drugs, published in November 2015.

She said that the committee had suggested “that a health/counselling/treatment approach may be more effective and more appropriate for those found in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use, rather than imposing a criminal sanction resulting in a lifelong criminal record. The committee pointed out that better use would be made of Garda and court resources if, in certain cases, a criminal sanction was not mandatory for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.”

She said that Portugal had adopted this policy 15 years ago and “has seen the harm reducing benefits of this approach, such as an increase in the numbers of people who misuse drugs seeking help for their addiction, a fall in the number of HIV/AIDS cases and significant savings in law enforcement and court service resources. While it is still an offence in Portugal to possess illegal drugs, if the person is found with 10 days’ supply or less for personal use, they can be required to report to a Committee for Addiction Dissuasion, where an assessment is carried out and education/treatment provided or, in some cases, a return to the criminal justice system can result.”

Ms Maher said that discretion should remain with An Garda Síochána as to whether a civil/administrative response or a criminal sanction was appropriate. “Indeed, the Oireachtas Committee acknowledged that no single treatment approach is effective for all persons and the harm reducing and rehabilitative approach must be flexible and appropriately resourced to cater for individual needs.”