Government unveils ‘significant reforms’ to drug possession but rejects decriminalisation

Government unveils 'significant reforms' to drug possession but rejects decriminalisation

The Government has announced what it calls “significant reforms” to the possession of drugs for personal use in Ireland, introducing alternatives to prosecution for first and second offences but rejecting decriminalisation.

Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), told Irish Legal News that the decision not to decriminalise drug possession for personal use represents “a missed opportunity to improve lives”.

Health Minister Simon Harris, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and drugs strategy minister Catherine Byrne appeared together today to announce the Government’s approval for a “public health approach” to drug use in Ireland.

Under the new plans, a person found to be in possession of drugs would, on the first occasion, be referred by gardaí on a mandatory basis to the HSE for a health screening and brief intervention. On the second occasion, gardaí would have discretion to issue an adult caution.

The announcement was informed by the report from the Working Group to Consider Alternative Approaches to the Possession of Drugs for Personal Use, chaired by Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, which has now been published online.

The working group warned that “constitutional difficulties” could arise if Irish legislators tried to follow Portugal in decriminalising drugs, due to the “significant differences between the codified legal system of Portugal and the legal system which operates in Ireland”.

However, the working group recommended an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 “so that imprisonment is no longer an outcome for the possession of drugs for personal use, subject to a full examination of the legal implications and any unforeseen consequences”.

The group also called for changes to the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016 so that all convictions for drug possession for personal use can be spent within three years.

In a highly unusual move, Mr Justice Sheehan published a minority report in which he distanced himself from these recommendations.

The retired judge said he is “opposed to making any changes to our drug laws which might be seen as tending towards the normalisation of drug use” and instead urged the Government to “immediately set about the daunting task of restoring the rule of law to every community in Ireland”.

The Government has said the recommendations on imprisonment and spent convictions “were not considered”.

Speaking today, Mr Flanagan said: “I am grateful to the chair of the working group, Judge Garrett Sheehan, and his colleagues who gave a great deal of consideration to this complex issue.

“I am very pleased that we are in a position to build on the work already done to try to reduce the amount of people ending up with a criminal conviction for first time simple drug possession offences, while at the same time continuing to take a very tough approach against those who supply those drugs to often vulnerable people in our communities.”

The minister said he intends to examine the possibility of introducing a specific offence of grooming children, through inducements such as the provision of drugs or by other means, for the commission of drug-related crime, with a view to combatting any potential exploitation of children.

Meanwhile, Mr Herrick said: “The government decision not to decriminalise personal possession of drugs is a missed opportunity to improve lives.

“It goes against research and experience in other jurisdictions where treating drug use as a health, not a criminal, issue brings better social, health and community outcomes.”

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