Approaches to Drugs in the Programme for Government 2020

Help Not Harm
6 min readJun 17, 2020


by Graham de Barra

A draft Programme for Government was released earlier in the week with input from the three parties bidding to take leadership; Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party.

The 139 page document details a number of issues tackling housing, healthcare and the environment, as well as calling for the end of Direct Provision. An entire section has been dedicated to drug policy which this article will dissect. The full document can be read here.

The overall approach in this document is to divert people caught in possession of personal amounts of drugs from the criminal justice system to a mandatory public health intervention; the use of the Adult Caution Scheme on first offence; and to retain power of An Garda Siochana to stop-and-search suspected cases of drug possession with the aim of diverting people to appropriate services. There is a commitment to implement this moderate style of “decriminalisation” with a review after one year. A better term for this would be “mandatory treatment under the Adult Caution Scheme” rather than decriminalisation in the strict sense of the term, as there are no plans to reschedule any drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act and the threat of a criminal conviction is still prevalent on repeated possession offences.

The language contained in this document is perhaps more progressive than any other documents to date with explicit references to harm reduction, drug testing at festivals and a review of medical cannabis legislation. Definitely a first for any Programme for Government. On the otherhand arguments are framed conservatively for instance only mentioned are drug-free homeless accommodation, guilt-driven education blaming people who use drugs for supporting the black market and an introduction of early intervention education to 2nd Level students to highlight the dangers of “casual drug use”.

The proposed idea for a Citizen’s Assembly on drugs is a novel idea that has recently been undertaken in Scotland, where the recommendation was to tax the sale of cannabis in addition to “full decriminalisation” of all drugs. A Citizen’s Assembly would report to the Houses of the Oireachtas, who may refer to a relevant Committee of both houses. Considering that there already was a working group established in 2017 on the topic of drug decriminalisation, the hope here is that there will form a Committee on the topic of full regulation of cannabis should the Assembly here come to the same conclusion as in Scotland. The focus of any campaign going into the next Government should be to advance this narrative as a safer alternative to criminal control which decriminalisation alone cannot solve.

The first proposal contained in the Programme is:

“Examine the regulations and legislation that apply to cannabis use for medical conditions and palliative care having regard to the experience in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

Interestingly there is a focus on the UK model for medical cannabis, which is widely known to be monopolised by members of the Conservative party and their families. The first private prescription of cannabis flower cost 2,500 Pounds, and many patients are paying 300 Pounds just to get a consultation with a Specialist. Insurance companies won’t cover the cost of medical cannabis products at this time. The same patient in receipt of the first prescription, Carly Barton, recently had her home raided by police. The private prescription model should not be a place of inspiration for our new Government. This approach may actually be seen to be worse for access for people who cannot afford private prescriptions.

“Increase and support drug quality-testing services, particularly at festivals”

This will be perhaps seen as the most progressive proposal contained in the Programme for Government, and an issue that our UK counterparts have solved through services such as Wedinos Project and The Loop. Indeed, members of Help Not Harm have experience volunteering with some of these services and were involved in the conception of the first drug welfare of it’s kind at Electric Picnic in 2016. This will be welcomed by medical workers and activists who represent the campaign calling for quality-testing facilities. Whether this makes reference to an amnesty bin approach or front of house testing is not clear and somewhat vague.

“Re-establish the Galway City Community Based Alcohol Treatment Service”

This service was closed as part of a series of cutbacks at a time when drug use in rural Ireland was increasing. Members of our network campaigned for the reopening of the alcohol and addiction services in Galway and some 7 years later this may be achieved by the new Government, should the Programme pass next week.

“Establish a 24-hour helpline based on the FRANK helpline in the UK providing advice and assistance to people who use drugs and their family members.”

Another service that will be welcomed by people working in the area of drugs and that is the establishment of a 24-hour helpline. Talking about drugs has been a major barrier for Irish communities and one which we must overcome in order for drugs to effectively become a health-issue. There is little efficacy of having drug testing services, for instance, when people are too afraid to admit they use drugs in the first place.

“Reduce the number of lives lost through overdose by opening a pilot medically supervised injecting facility in Dublin City.”

This pilot has already been included in the last Government and it is positive to potentially see progress developing into the next. The sooner this pilot begins the better.

“Support roll-out of access to and training in opioid antidotes”

Naloxone is currently restricted under GP prescription in the Republic of Ireland, and more access will be welcomed by people working in drug services, to eventually allow anyone anonymously receive Naloxone for free from any pharmacy nationwide.

“Legislate against the coercion and use of minors in the sale and supply of drugs.”

The best way to legislate for safer working conditions, with age restrictions, in the sale and supply of drugs is by regulating them. Criminal gangs do not consider legal ethics when recruiting members and so it is unknown what effect more criminalisation will bring. Certainly an issue of concern for any parent is the use of minors in the criminal black market and strong political leadership will be required to tackle this issue.

“Continue to resource harm reduction and education campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of the risks of drug use and the contribution of drugs to criminality.”

Educating people on the risks of drugs, and in the same sentence blaming them for contributing to criminal gangs is not proven to be effective. The main contributing factor to criminal gangs is the law which currently grants them full control over an unregulated black market and until the law changes, the burden should not be placed on the people who simply use drugs. Rather recognising that demand for drugs exists in 21st Century society and taking control over that demand in a way that is safer for drug consumers like other countries would send a much bolder message to criminals.

This use of rhetoric is perhaps indicative of the type of conservative Government that is being proposed and begs the question of how it will achieve these ends. We will know next Friday 26th of June whether this draft Programme for Government passes or not.

Join us for our virtual Support Don’t Punish Global Day of Action happening on the 26th of June to get updates on the potential new Government and hear from drug policy experts on the theme “21st Century Responses to Drugs”.

Register free here:



Help Not Harm

Help Not Harm is a campaign supporting a shift of drugs from criminal justice to public health to improve access to harm reduction, education and treatment.