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Lynn Ruane on decriminalisation, delayed Citizen’s Assembly and drug stigma

Amidst the news that a citizens’ assembly on drugs could be delayed until 2023, Ireland has started looking at what could happen if drug legislation was changed. At the forefront of those calling for the end of drug stigma is Lynn Ruane.

The independent senator for Trinity College Dublin sat down with District to talk about her disappointment with the delayed assembly, frustrations with funding for essential services and Ireland’s prohibitionist model.

“There’s never not going to be a drugs market,” says Lynn. “The current drug legislation in this country does nothing to help people that do need support when it comes to drug use, especially if it does become a problem in their lives,” she continues.

“It has no impact on supply either. The idea that locking people up for simple drugs possession will have an effect on any market is silly, to be honest.”

Lynn previously introduced a Bill to decriminalise drugs in 2016, and her understanding is that “communities are at a boiling point” when it comes to this issue.

Three weeks ago, Lynn wrote an open letter calling on the Government to convene a citizens’ assembly on drugs in 2022, saying that Ireland “simply cannot wait any longer for progress on drug reform”. 

Amnesty Ireland, several NGOs and both Government and Opposition TDs signed the open letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin asking for the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs to be held this year. “We are issuing a call to the Government to immediately set a firm date for a Citizens’ Assembly on drugs this year. We simply cannot wait any longer,” it said.

“We are now at a point where two people will die a drug-related death every day in Ireland”

Lynn Ruane

When asked what motivated her to write the open letter, Lynn emphasises that many projects and services know how bad the situation is but cannot speak out as they fear being defunded by the Government. A citizen’s assembly would put those affected by addiction and criminalisation in charge, instead of a conservative Department for Health.

“The drugs assembly could be a real place for people to have these conversations about how this issue affects all areas of society. Looking at service provision, looking at the policy issues within the Drugs Act and assessing everything that is wrong with it,” she explains. “I feel like the citizens are way ahead of the politicians when it comes to issues like this.”

Minister for Drugs Frank Feighan has previously told the Oireachtas health committee that decriminalising drugs “isn’t compatible with the Irish legal system”. Lynn points to these kinds of views held by the Government as why she thinks “at some level, the policymakers think it is our own fault for suffering from addiction.”

She also notes that there is a reluctance at a Government level to halt stop-and-search powers by the Gardaí: “It’s completely a control thing.”

According to Lynn, Ireland’s drug legislation has made her extremely emotionally fatigued: “I don’t think people understand the rate at which working-class people die of drug-related deaths, the health complications that they go through later on in life and the misery that exists across Ireland.”

“The current legislation we have, the Drugs Act is now nearly forty years old. It is ultimately completely prohibitionist. Any kind of possession is illegal. And this legislation is argued to reduce drug use and act as a form of moral guidance almost. If drug use is illegal then it must be wrong, that’s the idea. But when these laws were introduced, there was significantly less drug use in Ireland.”

“There are lots of reasons why people use drugs,” Lynn explains. “But ultimately everyone is regarded as a criminal.”

Other than drug decriminalisation, Lynn emphasises that addiction services in Ireland also have to come a long way from their current state. Funding for drug and alcohol task forces has not been restored to pre-austerity levels. “If we’re going to talk about decriminalisation, we have to talk about investing as well,” says Lynn.

“One thing we can do for the moment is provide transitional housing, stable environments and aftercare. Introduce trauma-informed care for those with addiction. We should have been investing in all of this anyways.”

“Over 3,500 people were waiting for a drug or alcohol detox bed in Ireland as of February 2021, with over 2,200 on the waiting list for at least nine months”

Lynn Ruane

An outdated and underfunded system faces the Irish population, but that isn’t the only issue that Lynn wishes to tackle. It is clear that under Ireland’s regime of drug criminalisation, harmful drug use has only increased causing stigma against those suffering from addiction to rise also.

Lynn’s own activism focuses on decriminalisation and problematic drug use in marginalised communities: “Decriminalisation focuses on the individual, personal-use. Every time you start talking about these issues, everyone starts talking about drug dealers or violence. To me, I don’t think policy-makers can separate the idea of decriminalising someone for having an addiction from being scared of the drugs market,” she explains.

“With decriminalisation, you can find a way for people not to be stigmatised, for them to find a health intervention earlier on and help them avoid ending up in prison,” she continues.

If one person experiences even one minor conviction, it will appear on Garda vetting forms and other background checks for the rest of their life. “How can we promote rehabilitation to someone if they’re going to be punished forever?” Lynn asks. “Prohibition to me is just classist.”

“How can we promote rehabilitation to someone if they’re going to be punished forever?”

Lynn Ruane

To Lynn, even the simple action of criminalising the sale of drugs while decriminalising the use and possession of drugs seems like a better alternative to the system that currently exists.

She initially held off from introducing her bill to decriminalise drugs due to the Government promising to do a public consultation on the issue. The consultation had the highest number of submissions by the public in Ireland’s history with 22,000 submissions. The subsequent working group declined to recommend decriminalisation despite “it being the best solution, even back then.”

So what solution looks likely to happen soon? Well, Lynn is of the opinion that the legalisation of cannabis will trigger a domino effect as to how Ireland perceives drug use. “In the next five years, I do see Ireland taking that step,” she says. “But maybe I’m being a bit too hopeful.”

Lynn is also in favour of expanding medical trials to see how certain drugs can help with PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, but again this could be wishful thinking.

The topic of drug testing centres is also brought up while we’re discussing the societal stigma around drugs. “People don’t want to face the idea that there is a whole cohort of people who need these services,” Lynn explains. “We’re trying to keep people alive and safe, as well as keep needles off the streets. It’s about reducing the harm of drugs instead of running to ban all drug use.”

“We apparently have a health-led drug strategy,” Lynn comments. “But there are no safe facilities or paraphernalia in prisons for example.”

“The issue with current drug stigma is that people don’t want to be seen like us. They don’t want to be seen as the stereotype in their heads. Addiction is addiction – sometimes it looks a bit different”

Lynn Ruane

Previously serving as President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, Lynn set up a peer-support group and addiction service within the college to encourage students to seek help when they are suffering from substance abuse. “Young people, they’re so concerned with coming forward in case it affects their future careers. The pressure they suffer from, combined with a drug problem is like a ticking time bomb. I do think there is a lot of substance use among students that goes undocumented,” she notes.

“Once people admit that they use drugs, people who are more in-line with ‘the status quo’ start admitting that they use drugs, then things will start to change. Currently, they’re terrified of being called a druggie, terrified of the hierarchy that exists in society when it comes to addiction.”

Lynn has recently started a podcast named “Conversations On The Margins” which focuses on meaningful conversations and discussions about life, family, art, music and more, from inside the Irish prison system. Chapter three of the limited series focuses on addiction and stigma, featuring the perspectives of those who have been in the system and Caron McCaffrey, Director General of the Irish Prison Service.

“Nobody wants to spend their every waking hour thinking about where they’re going to get their next fix,” explains Lynn. “The least we can do on a policy basis is help those with addiction, because currently both society and legislation are stacked against them.”

“There’s a real misconception that people choose addiction. And instead of focusing on individuals, the system treats anyone associated with drugs like a criminal.”

To keep up to date with Lynn’s activities as a senator, you can visit her website. You can also check out her podcast here.

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