I am at Croke Park, the sacred home of the GAA (my Ulster protestant grandfather — a lifelong Orangeman — would be turning in his grave) for a drug policy conference.

CityWide Drug Conference Dublin November 2015

CityWide has spent the past two decades as a grassroots community advocate for more compassionate drug polices, an approach that is now more fashionably described as ‘harm reduction’
They are twenty years old this year and they marked the event by inviting the diminutive Irish President Michael D. Higgins to give an address.

His tremendous speech evoked near-hosannas in the audience.

Something is stirring in Ireland with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the country’s Minister with responsibility for Drug Strategy, now campaigning openly for decriminalisation of small possession of all drugs. The Dail’s Justice Committee, having intensely examined examined the Portuguese model — are doing likewise.

Imagine Prince Charles rocking up a drugs conference and you can sense the impact of Higgins intervention. However coded the language was, his intent was plain.

Aodhan O Riordan Anna Quigley Michael D Higgins
From left: Aodhán Ó Ríodáin, Anna Quigley of CityWide and President Michael D. Higgins, Photo credit: @AodhanORiordain

 

According to Anna Quigley the Director of City Wide it was Veronica Guerin’s murder in 1996 that changed everything here. No longer could the government ignore the existence of organised criminal gangs funded by drugs but it was community organisations that stepped up to the challenge

Heroin, in particular, is a major problem drug in Ireland — not just in Dublin — and it is the communities affected by addiction to it that have provided civil society leadership on the issue.
Now politicians are finally responding and with some boldness.

Higgins’s address was infused with moral indignation about the stigmatisation of marginalised groups in Ireland and it is from a place of deep compassion for addicts that attitudes are changing fast over here.
But there is another view I keep hearing on my recent visits to Ireland this past few months. It comes from another place, often delivered by gruff male community workers. It applauds everyone in the hall for commitment to harm reduction but wonders why we everyone seems sanguine about leaving drugs in the hands of violent gangsters.

That is another story and for another day but it won’t go away.

But today was another sign that Ireland is inexorably moving beyond moralising about drug consumption and focusing on practical steps to move beyond prohibition.

Watch this space.

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