This piece first appeared in Cannabis Now.
After years of planning, Ireland has finally moved ahead to decriminalize first-time drug offenders — and not just for cannabis.
Irish officials announced on Aug. 2 that the nation would be taking a public health approach to first and second offenses for the simple possession of small amounts of drugs.
The plan was announced late last week by Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Minister of State Catherine Byrne. Byrne is also responsible for the nation’s national drug strategy. While the three didn’t completely see eye to eye on the details, they announced approval to develop a health-led approach.
“This is a very significant day. For far too long, we have only looked at drug use from a criminal justice perspective,” Harris said in the statement. “Addiction has impacted so many families and many communities. It is essential we look beyond the labels society forces on people with addiction, look to the person and how the system can help them.”
Ireland has been working on this plan since November 2015, when the then-Prime Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin announced that the country would take measures to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal use, in an attempt to combat the country’s drug addiction problems.
According to a statement from Harris’s office, there are two components to the new so-called “Health Diversion Approach.” After the Garda (that’s what the cops are called in Ireland) determine that the drugs they find are for personal use, offenders will be referred on a mandatory basis to the Health Service Executive for a screening and brief intervention. The second time, Garda will have the option to file a warning. Third time is where the criminal justice system starts to come into play again. And it’s on this third offense that the consequences for cannabis possession get a little hazy.
How Cannabis Possession Will Be Punished in Ireland
With cannabis, it will be important how the Irish police count the first two offenses. The law that’s still on the books governing cannabis in Ireland today is from the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act. Section 27 of the law stipulates that a first cannabis possession offense warrants a fine of 50 pounds (now converted to euros) and a second offense means a fine of 100 pounds. On the third offense, the person faces a fine “not exceeding two hundred and fifty pounds or, at the discretion of the court, imprisonment for a term not exceeding twelve months, or both the fine and the imprisonment.”
But under the new health-focused plan, it’s not clear if people caught with personal amounts of cannabis will be charged the first and second fines or not. Will the fines only kick in after the third offense? Will the fines be dropped in favor of the Health Diversion Approach, still leading to that possible year in jail on the third offense? From the early going, it looks like the new law would supercede past stuff.
“Today is the start of a new approach,” Harris said. “One that offers people a helping hand, not handcuffs. One that offers a person a second chance. I strongly believe this will help us battle drug addiction and ultimately save lives.”
Ireland Continues to Push for Medical Cannabis
Not everyone is satisfied with how far the plan goes in decriminalizing drugs. Among them is Gino Kenny, who has led the fight for medical cannabis in Ireland since being elected a member of the lower house of Ireland’s Parliament, Dáil Éireann, in 2016. After years under heavy pressure from Kenny and families across Ireland, Harris signed a five-year pilot program for medical cannabis in Ireland earlier this summer.
“While I welcome the policy of diverting those caught in possession of drugs for personal use into the health system rather than the criminal justice system, I believe that limiting it to the first offense is effectively a halfway house rather than the full decriminalization that is warranted,” Kenny said in a statement to supporters on Facebook. “If we truly want to address drug use and addiction in society, we must adopt a progressive policy of a committed health-led approach rather than criminalizing people who need help rather than a prison sentence.”
Kenny went on to note it makes sense the law would mandate the health evaluation for harder drugs, but “referring individuals to the [Health Service Executive] for small amounts of cannabis, however, can only help clog up an already stretched service and would quickly become inoperable.”
Kenny says he wants an explanation of why full decriminalization wasn’t possible.
“It is progress, but it should go further if we are to stay in line with the global move towards a health-led approach to drug use and misuse,” Kenny said. “I am also calling for the expungement of prior convictions for personal possession so that everyone can now be included in this new process and avail of the benefits of a more health-led approach. It would be completely unjust to exclude those with prior convictions.”