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new policy

First-time offenders to be referred to HSE when found in possession of drugs for personal use

Today’s shift in drug policy is already being criticised as not going far enough.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Aug 2019

THE GOVERNMENT HAS announced new plans for dealing with personal drug use, which will see first time offenders referred to the HSE for health screening. 

The changes are being made as part of a new health-led approach to personal drug use, instead of criminalising those found with drugs.

This approach, according to the government, will aim to connect people who use drugs with health services to support them on their path to recovery.

In the first instance of being found in possession, gardaí will refer the person to health services. In the second instance, the gardaí will have discretion to issue an adult caution. Third and further offences will be treated within the criminal justice system, as is the case currently. 

The measures to be announced today fall far short of changes that had been called for by campaigners seeking the decriminalisation of people caught with smaller amounts of drugs. 

However Health Minister Simon Harris described this as a “significant day” for Irish society. 

Speaking at the launch of a new report on approaches to possession of drugs for personal use, Harris spoke about the attitude society should have towards drug users: 

“We have to realise they are human beings. They deserve our support.”


The new system would allow first-time offenders to avoid getting a criminal record. In 2017, gardaí recorded more than 12,000 incidents of possession of drugs for personal use.

The HSE will allocate healthcare workers in areas across the country to deliver the service for people referred by the gardaí.

The announcement follows on from the launch in 2017 of the government’s new National Drugs Strategy, titled Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. This strategy explicitly supports moving towards a “health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland”.

In November of 2018, junior minister with responsibility for the strategy Catherine Byrne set up a working group to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use, and the government has been considering that group’s report in recent weeks. 

Here’s how the ‘first offence’ system announced today will work:

  • Gardaí identify a person in possession of drugs 
  • Gardaí refer the person to a screening service which will be provided by the HSE
  • The person attends the intervention with a health care worker 
  • If the person is identified as having a problem with drugs, they are offered treatment
  • Other referrals such as social services or harm reduction courses may then be offered
  • The person’s attendance at the intervention is confirmed to gardaí

Public consultation

A consultation asking for the public’s views on the matter was launched last year in the form of an online questionnaire.

The questionnaire found the majority (nearly 90%) of the more than 20,000 respondents supported the removal of criminal penalties for the offence of simple possession. 

Just 9% of respondents believed the current approach prevents or reduces drug use. 

The survey showed 81% agree the removal of criminal penalties would encourage people to seek treatment. 

Some 17,710 respondents shared their previous experience with drugs – 45% had used drugs on only a few occasions, 37% had used on many occasions and 18% had never used illegal drugs. 

Even among the group that had never used drugs, 72% were in favour of removing criminal penalties. 

Respondents thought that different drugs warranted a different response. 

For example, 56% believed no action should be taken when a person is found in possession of cannabis for personal use, but this dropped to 23% for ecstasy/MDMA, 13% for cocaine and 5% for heroin. 

‘It is a health issue the hundredth time’

The Ana Liffey Drug Project, which has campaigned for a new approach to be adopted that would effectively decriminalise anyone found in possession of small amounts of drugs, has said the new policy shift does not go far enough. 

According to ALDP “if personal drug use is a health issue the first time, it is a health issue the hundredth time. Using the criminal law to punish someone for not accessing healthcare, or for engaging in behaviours which result in referral to healthcare on multiple occasions is inconsistent with a health-led approach”. 

The ALDP, which has provided drugs and homeless services in Dublin city centre since the 1980s, notes: 

For most people, not being found in possession of drugs on multiple occasions is an easy thing to comply with. However, for some people, these things are not easy to comply with. And the people who will have difficulty complying with these requirements are likely to be those who are already facing significant challenges in their lives, such as homelessness, health issues and other complex needs that combine to make them both more visible to An Garda Síochána and less able to comply with bureaucracy.

“Although it is not the proposed policy’s intent to further marginalise this group of people, we are deeply concerned that this will be its unintended consequence, and that this would be a policy that would end up compounding poverty and disadvantage as opposed to reducing harm and supporting recovery.” 

In an unusual move, the chairman of the working group set up to examine this issue submitted his own minority report on the matter to government disagreeing with his own group’s recommendations. 

Retired judge Garrett Sheehan advised against any changes that might normalise drug use. 

Not the Portuguese model 

The measures set to be announced by government today do not go as far as the ‘Portuguese model’ of drug policy, adopted in the country in the early 2000s. 

Portugal decriminalised the use of illegal drugs in 2001, a move which experts say has led to a ”spectacular” reduction in the number of infections among intravenous users and a significant drop in drug-related crimes. / YouTube

The law, which became active in 2001, did not legalise drug use, but instead forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than criminal courts.

A report published by the Oireachtas Justice Committee four years ago outlined that, while it might be suggested that such programmes could add to the cost of healthcare, the experience in Portugal has “actually resulted in a reduction in costs to the State”.

That cross-party panel also recommended in 2015 that the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs be decriminalised.

The report 

A review of approaches taken in Ireland an in other jurisdictions was conducted on behalf of the working group by Professor Alex Stevens and Dr Rebecca Cassidy from the University of Kent, UK; and Dr Caitlin Hughes and Shann Hulme from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Although researchers said it is not possible to give a definitive answer as to the possible outcome(s) of introducing alternative approaches, they pointed out that the current
approach places significant costs and burdens on the citizen that are not offset by any reduction in health or social harms.

They recommended a combination of two models given Ireland’s relatively high levels of cannabis and heroin use – the depenalisation of the most minor possession offences and decriminalisation with targeted diversion for offenders most likely to need it.

They suggested that this hybrid approach would reduce costs to criminal justice system, would not lead to increases in drug use and would provide pathways to treatment and other services for people who need it, without overburdening the health system with people who do not need treatment.

Gangland crime

The working group noted that there was not a lot of evidence about the approaches mentioned above and their impact on organised crime.

The possible link between changing drug policies and increased organised criminal activity was raised within the group as a concern.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan today said this approach is not about normalising drugs or making life easier for dealers.

A pilot project will commence this year to tackle what he described as “the increasing trend” of children being used in the drug trade.

He said he will “continue to focus relentlessly on gangland criminals who are importing drugs into Ireland”.

Sean Murray & Daragh Brophy
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