Blunt Trauma: Criminalisation, Stigma and Cannabis Use
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
The momentum for drug policy reform in Ireland has grown significantly over the last number of years with the introduction of medicinal cannabis, and the passing of legislation to allow supervised injecting facilities. Ireland is at a pivotal crossroads with an upcoming citizens' assembly on drug policy having catapulted the conversation into the wider public and beyond the echo chamber of activists, campaigners, and academics, with decriminalisation at the centre of this conversation.
The topic of decriminalisation has gained significant traction over the last number of years both globally and here in Ireland, especially given Portugal’s success in the domain since its introduction in 2001. Decriminalisation can be simply described as the removal of criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs. No longer will people who use drugs be herded through a punitive criminal justice system like cattle to the slaughter, instead they will be viewed as people who may need assistance, and offered any support and help that may be needed.
Globally the focus of drug policy has shifted from one of a “war on drugs and a war on drug users” toward an ever-increasing understanding that criminalising people who use drugs has been the wrong approach and has done little to combat the public and social harms of illegal drugs. The most striking illustration of this is Kofi Annan, who once advocated for a drug-free world at the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 1998, and more recently before his death advocated for change to prohibitionist drug policy to address the health and social risks.
At home in Ireland, personal possession of drugs is currently illegal and punishable through the criminal justice system. Data from the Central Statistics office show that roughly 70-77%of recorded drug offences year on year are for personal possession, which in the last 3 years has led to the criminalisation of over 42,000 people. The vast majority of these cases are dealt with by the District Court by way of a fine or a suspended sentence, with an estimated 600 people still punished with imprisonment every year. Although the vast majority avoid a custodial sentence, they are still subjected to a criminal record and labelled as a criminal in society. Despite our legislators emphasising a health-led approach in our National Drug Strategy, the word decriminalisation is mentioned once simply to say that there have been calls for its implementation. Our national drug strategy shows that there has been little focus from our government to undo the unintended consequences of prohibition, criminalisation and the negative effects of stigmatisation that can cause many hidden barriers for people who use drugs. While drug use is spread evenly across society, in practice enforcement is not. Enforcement of drug possession is disproportionately targeted towards specific members of society, those who are poor and disadvantaged.
The goal of criminal law is two-fold, to act as a deterrent to any socially unacceptable behaviour and secondly, once punished, to deter future unacceptable behaviour. The deterrence element of the war on drugs has clearly failed, instead, drug use has continued to rise in Ireland with the probability of getting caught relatively low, as low as 1% for cannabis. It is clear that criminalisation has had the opposite than desired effect. In the War on Drugs, Drugs are the clear winner. The stigma of a criminal conviction has often been weaponised and acts as a strong deterrent especially when reinforced with imprisonment. One study found that for the majority of people the most degrading aspect of the criminal justice system is the social message it conveys and the stigma that attaches to the person, while another suggests that the stigma of criminality plays a more significant role in a person’s life than any other sanction such as imprisonment.
Stigma can manifest itself in many ways in society. Drug use has always been a stigmatising act from the general public's point of view, although the strength of that stigma differs depending on the drug in question, for example, people who use heroin are more stigmatised in society in comparison to cannabis users. This may be due to the changing attitudes towards cannabis in society and the increasing understanding of its value as a medicinal product. Research conducted in 2006 showed that two-thirds of the general public would not like a drug user in their neighbourhood, and half think drug users are a major source of crime. This public perception of people who use drugs permeates most areas of society and can create many barriers for people. By criminalising people in Ireland, we severely impact the future career and employment prospects of an otherwise law-abiding person. Employers are hesitant to hire a person who uses drugs, one study found that employers were concerned about trustworthiness, unreliability and the company's reputation. To remove these barriers we need to tackle the stigma, this can only be achieved by removing the negative label of a criminal by decriminalising drug possession. Particularly during a time when certain sectors are facing a labour crisis post-lockdown and Irish businesses are struggling to find workers the country cannot afford to put people out of work over personal drug possession.
The national drug strategy states that Ireland is taking a health-led approach to drug use. But there seems to be no consideration for the health of the drug user. One study has shown that professionals' attitudes towards people who use drugs are interwoven with stigma and prejudice and lead to suboptimal care. I would attribute this attitude to the lack of education of health professionals. Studies have shown that these negative attitudes can be transformed into attitudes of compassion and empathy after receiving education on drug use. In a setting where openness and honesty about drug use are essential, the reactions of health professionals to drug use should not be a negative one.
What happens to people who use drugs when facing this endless barrage of negative stigmatising attitudes? They withdraw from their community, withdraw from society, which leads to a loss of self-worth and self-confidence. They no longer feel part of the pack, they feel outcasted, shamed, attacked, and worthless. How can a national drugs strategy that advocates support and reintegration succeed without the removal of criminal penalties? To continue criminalising people while advocating a health-led approach is like swimming against the current.
To properly make a difference in the lives of people who use drugs we need to start by removing the criminal element. Only then will we be able to achieve a fair and just society for everyone, not just a few.