Illicit drugs, criminal justice and harm reduction : Getting the balance right

Authored by: Connolly Johnny , Andrew Percy

The Routledge Handbook of Irish Criminology

Print publication date:  December  2015
Online publication date:  December  2015

Print ISBN: 9781138019430
eBook ISBN: 9781315779003
Adobe ISBN: 9781317698173


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This chapter critically reviews the evolution of drug policy and practice in Ireland and how it has responded to the changing nature of consumption amongst Irish adults and young people. The primary focus of the chapter will be on policy responses to illicit substances, as proscribed under the terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 for Republic of Ireland (ROI) and the United Kingdom’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for Northern Ireland (NI) rather than licit drugs such as alcohol. The chapter begins with a review of the global and local burden of illicit substances and notes their impact on the criminal justice system. We then trace the historical emergence of problematic illicit drug use from the late-1970s up to the mid- to late-1990s. The years 1994 to 1998 can be regarded as a watershed moment in Irish drug policy. In the ROI, the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin in the summer of 1996 by drug dealers resulted in the drug issue assuming one of the highest priorities of the state for the first time. In NI, the evolving peace process saw the loosening of both state and paramilitary security controls over local communities, and one unintended consequence of this was the emergence of a more active illicit drug culture. The chapter then traces the development of drug policy in both jurisdictions, focussing on the uneasy combination of criminal justice and harm reduction approaches that have been a characteristic feature of both. This highlights the prevailing tensions that exist between these two conflicting perspectives, one based within a healthcare paradigm and the other within a criminal justice or legal paradigm. The following issues are then examined: the failure of criminal justice approaches to deter the increase in drug availability or use; the negative human rights implications of the many draconian criminal justice measures introduced in response to drug-related crime; the unintended negative effects of criminal justice approaches including their tendency to make drug markets less predictable and potentially more violent; and the manner in which drug law enforcement can undermine harm reduction approaches. Finally, we examine current international debates for reform in this area and the potential for change in Ireland. In particular, debates around drug legalisation or decriminalisation and reforms that seek to reconcile law enforcement and harm reduction approaches are explored.

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