The Irish Penal Reform Trust warmly welcomes the invitation by the committee to comment on Ireland's approach to the possession of limited quantities of certain drugs. As the committee will be aware, the IPRT is not a drug treatment service organisation, but we support progressive reform of the penal system, with imprisonment used as a last resort. Over the years we have observed, in research, the intimate connections between drug use and offending behaviour. It is important to point out that the IPRT understands decriminalisation, as opposed to legalisation, to be a reform of the law that would abolish criminal sanctions in respect of the act of possession, but would continue to enforce a prohibitionist regime by shifting the response to a civil or administrative or, ideally, a health-based response.
IPRT firmly holds four views on the issue. First, a focus on addressing the root causes of personal drug misuse would be more cost-effective and socially effective than continuing to expend enormous resources on criminalisation and, in some cases, imprisonment. Second, low-risk offenders, including those found in possession of drugs, could be safely and efficiently removed from the criminal justice system, which would reduce some of the pressure on prison places and resources. Third, and crucially, moves to decriminalise certain drug-related offences must be met with investment in evidence-informed substance misuse services, treatments and interventions in the community, because decriminalisation cannot happen in isolation. The last point, which is very dear to our hearts, and which I do not think will be raised by other witnesses, is that securing employment or training and the ability to rebuild one's life after committing an offence, after conviction or after addiction is crucial to breaking the cycle of offending. With the Portuguese model, no conviction was recorded when somebody came into contact with the committee on dissuasion. Along with enacting effective spent convictions legislation, we would see that aspect as essential in any model designated for decriminalisation.
To adopt decriminalisation as an approach does not imply that drug use or abuse is not a serious issue or one that does not demand a response. Instead, it recognises that drug use is an issue that demands an effective response. Using a criminal justice response, which includes prison, to tackle a chronic relapsing condition such as drug addiction is counterproductive for the individual and the community. Criminalising possession is not supported by strong evidence of effectiveness in reducing the number of repeat possession offences, and it compounds the cycle of disadvantage.
It is important to note the consensus with regard to international research. One finding by many major national and international bodies is that there is no link between the severity of punishment and the level of drug use in society. In 2012, the Release centre launched a report analysing 21 jurisdictions that had decriminalised possession of all or some drugs and found no increase in the prevalence of drug use. That finding has been echoed and amplified by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and, most recently, by the UK Home Office in its 2014 policy paper. There is consensus that decriminalisation has no impact on drug use, but it would have an impact on the wastage of resources within the Irish criminal justice system in terms of Garda time, court time and prison resources. When the committee considers this issue it must look not only at the offence position but at that first interaction with the criminal justice system. Addiction or the use of drugs can contribute to other drug-related offences, such as theft and shoplifting, which often arise in relation to drug use.
A very common sanction in regard to drug possession would be a court ordered fine. We are aware that in 2014 more than 9,000 people were imprisoned for failure to pay a court ordered fine. That flow of entries into and out of the prison system not only has an impact on admissions and accommodation for the Irish prison system but also has an impact on such things as security. Transience in the prison population, caused by high rates of committal on short sentences, increases the risk of illegal drugs entering the system and creates an unstable environment in which it is more difficult to maintain good order.
We know from the Release report that the Portuguese experience was that while in 1994, 44% of prisoners were incarcerated for drug related offences, in less than ten years that number had halved to 21%. This resulted in a major reduction in prison overcrowding in Portuguese prisons. In our view, decriminalisation would reduce some of the strains on the prison system but also reduce the number of drug users circulating within that system.
The cost of prison is enormous - €70,000 per year per prisoner, not including education, court time or prison time. To use the full force of the criminal justice apparatus is an expensive and ineffective response to personal drug possession and it potentially diverts resources away from services and supports and Garda time that could be used much more effectively to address the more serious offences and offending.
I mentioned the impact of the Portuguese approach and the fact that no criminal conviction was recorded in those cases. We would simply reiterate that along with effective spent convictions legislation, which we still do not have, this would be a crucial part of the system of decriminalisation. The Irish Penal Reform Trust views the introduction of this model, if properly researched, properly resourced and properly operationalised, as one which has very strong potential to represent an innovative and cost-effective response to drug misuse and related offending.