Updated: Dec 1, 2022
In the conversation around drug policy, people often get confused about the difference between Decriminalisation and legalisation, often putting both regimes in the same bracket. This can lead to confusion and panic from members of the public. As the conversation grows around the reform of drug policy in Ireland it is important to clarify the difference between the two.
When a person is caught with cannabis for personal use, criminal charges are brought against the person. The person is then managed through the criminal justice system, a process which can often take years to complete. The drug itself is not legal, it is not under any regulatory regime, and remains illegal to import which will still carry penalties. Put simply decriminalisation is removing the criminal sanctions that apply to a person for the personal use of an illegal drug. It is important to reiterate the drug, in this case, cannabis, will still be illegal, it will still be unregulated and still only available on the black market.
The rationale behind this approach is to treat drugs as a health and social issue and not a criminal justice or moral issue. Decriminalisation can reduce the burden on our criminal justice system by eliminating Court time, Garda time, legal practitioners, and the costs of imprisonment, while also removing the harmful consequences the person may face such as stigma, loss of employment, loss of opportunity and negative social outcomes.
Decriminalisation is not a silver bullet solution; it is often referred to as a stepping stone on the road to reform.
Drug legalisation removes all criminal penalties for possession and personal use, leading to the substance becoming permissible by law. People can now use their drugs freely without worrying about convictions or fines. Depending on the model, legalisation often comes with regulation. Regulation of the substance can take many forms, such as restrictions on pesticides in cannabis cultivation, limits on purity, and limits on the amount people can purchase in one transaction.
Legalisation makes what was once illegal now permissible. An example of this would be our abortion law, once illegal and criminalised, now legal and regulated.