State committee mulls drugs diversion scheme

A State committee examining Ireland’s laws on the possession of drugs for personal use is thought to be favouring a diversion scheme, the Irish Examiner understands.

The proposal would mean that the committee appears to be stopping short of recommending decriminalisation.

Under a diversion system, possession of drugs would remain a criminal offence, but people caught with small amounts of drugs for their own use would be sent by gardaí for “health intervention”, rather than face possible criminal prosecution.

The state working group on alternative approaches for personal possession of illegal drugs is expected to recommend legal changes, involving a more health- focused approach, though they might not go as far as some anticipated.

A diversion scheme would be a halfway house between criminalisation and decriminalisation, and would most likely, depending on the full conditions of the scheme, face opposition from community and voluntary groups that campaigned for decriminalisation.

The working group has sought, and been given, a three-month extension to finalise its recommendations and write up its report.

Established in November 2017 under the joint authority of the departments of health and justice, the expert body was supposed to report at the end of 2018.

The group is chaired by Judge Garreth Sheehan and is dominated by high-level officials from government departments and state agencies. Six of its 14 members are drawn from the departments of health and justice. There is also a senior representative from An Garda Síochána, the HSE, the Probation Service, the DPP, the Health Research Board, a legal expert, and two former drug users.

There is no representation from the community and voluntary sectors, even though they sought to be included.

The working group engaged in extensive research, including a public consultation process, which resulted in 20,000 submissions.

It is understood that the group’s examination of a diversion system has looked at the current juvenile diversion programme and the adult caution scheme, which divert offenders away from the criminal system.

The proposal may involve a liberalisation of those programmes, particularly the adult scheme which is based on the condition that the person is deemed unlikely to reoffend and where the caution (bar exceptional circumstances) can only be granted once. Given the relapsing nature of drug addiction, drug and health workers argue that such a scheme would be of limited use.

The group’s proposals will apply to all drugs. Determining the quantities for personal possession is still being determined, with clarity needed as to how gardaí on the street can determine if quantities are below the threshold for possession.

It is understood the committee has been told that possession must remain a criminal offence for gardaí to have legal authority to refer someone to the health services.

The Oireachtas justice committee recommended in November 2015 a harm reduction and rehabilitative approach to possession, similar to Portugal.

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