Drug users could escape conviction under new plan

The new National Drug Strategy aims to take a health-led approach to drug use

People caught in possession of small quantities of drugs – including heroin, cocaine and cannabis – will escape criminal conviction under new proposals.

The government’s new National Drug Strategy will see a working group established to assess alternatives to criminal conviction for minor drug possession.

The group will explore the approach taken in other jurisdictions and provide an analysis of alternatives to criminal conviction.

Speaking at the launch of the new strategy this morning, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said criminal punishment for minor drug use simply provides an extra barrier to recovery.

“I firmly believe we need to do all we can to remove obstacles to rehabilitation and barriers that prevent people from changing the way they live their lives,” he said.

“So I very much welcome the commitment in this strategy to set up a working group to examine the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to dealing with simple possession offences."

The new strategy will take a heath-led approach to minor drug use, with those found in possession referred to treatment services - where they can get help for their drug use.

It will be welcomed by campaigners who have warned that the current system is counter-productive and over-expensive – with approximately seven out of every ten drug cases before the courts related to possession for personal use.

Mr Varadkar said there were nearly 700 drug-related deaths in Ireland in 2014 – adding that three quarters of them were male and half were under the age of 40.

“Treating substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health challenge, rather than a criminal justice matter, helps individuals, helps families, and helps communities,” he said.

“It reduces crime because it rebuilds lives.  So it benefits all of us.”  

Oireachtas recommendation

The Oireachtas Justice Committee travelled to Portugal in 2015, to see first-hand the effect of the decriminalisation policy – which was introduced there in 2001.

Since the introduction of the policy, the country has seen a decline in drug use among young people, a sharp drop in drug related deaths, a drop in new HIV cases and a surge in patients attending health clinics that deal with addiction.

The committee recommended a similar approach be introduced in Ireland - and the new working group will decide whether to act upon that recommendation.

Normalisation

However, there are those opposed to the new plan – and on Newstalk Breakfast, defence lawyer John Hennessy warned it could lead to the normalisation of drug use:

“There have been efforts over the last few years to change the sentencing; rehabilitation I would be in support of that; but decriminalising it - no,” he said.

“There has to be a big no, no around it and I would be concerned; normalising drugs is not a good thing.”

The new working group will be asked to report back to government within 12 months.

The drug strategy is also expected to include a focus on expanding alcohol and drug addiction services for pregnant women and mothers.

Seven new midwives will also be hired to work with drug and alcohol-addicted mothers and babies. 

Needle exchange programmes will be expanded while the available of drug and alcohol services will be expanded around the country.

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