People found with small amounts of illegal drugs should not be criminalised, committee told

Health-focused approach could remove stigma and help those needing treatment, groups urge

A health-focused approach to people found with small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use would be better than criminalising them, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Personal use possession should be decriminalised to remove the stigma and shame associated with drug use, which can dissuade vulnerable people from seeking addiction treatment, several stakeholders told the Justice committee on Tuesday.

A health-focused approach with better investment in support services and the proper regulation of drugs such as cannabis, should happen alongside this, they urged.

However, a group of doctors concerned about the adverse effects of cannabis cautioned against decriminalisation.


Some committee members, including Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward and Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny, expressed concern that decriminalising cannabis and/or drugs might benefit organised criminal gangs.

Whatever the views of the committee on legalising cannabis, there is “no justification for criminalising people who use the drug”, Dr Garrett McGovern of the Priority Medical Clinic, an addiction rehabilitation centre, said.

Ireland could learn from drug policies in other countries such as Portugal, which has one of the lowest fatal overdose rates and HIV in Europe, as well as lower drug-related crime since 2001 when a regime of administrative, rather than criminal, sanctions for personal possession of drugs was adopted. This move was made in tandem with an expansion in drug harm reduction and treatment services, he outlined.

The committee heard from Dr McGovern and others on Tuesday as part of its consideration into whether the current approach to small amounts for personal use is counterproductive in terms of dissuading drug use.

The issues addressed included whether administrative, rather than criminal, sanctions would be more appropriate and cost-effective in dissuading drug use. The committee heard how other countries, including Portugal, Malta and Switzerland, have approached the issues.

While the stakeholders differed on some issues, all were in favour of a health-focused approach.

Martin Condon of Patients for Safe Access, a group seeking to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research, and Crainn, a group set up to “educate on all things cannabis”, including the drug’s medical uses, supported decriminalisation.

Dr Nuno Capaz, of the Portuguese ministry of health’s dissuasion commission, which was set up to apply Portugal’s administrative sanctions regime, outlined how the regime works.

Dr Bobby Smyth of the Cannabis Risk Alliance (CRA), an alliance of doctors, was concerned that lower sanctions for having cannabis for personal use compared to other drugs would perpetuate the idea that cannabis is a more harmless drug than others. More people under 25 are seeking treatment for cannabis addiction than for alcohol addiction treatment, he said.

The conversation about drug policy has been overtaken for some time by those advocating decriminalisation when the focus should be on treatment, he said. Ireland has made notable achievements in relation to treatment, he added.

Those supporting decriminalisation argued criminalisation has resulted in the drugs market being unregulated and that was particularly problematic in terms of cannabis supply. There has been an increase in counterfeit cannabis products which contain harmful chemicals that can cause serious health complications or prove fatal, the committee heard.

An educational model to reduce harm will require adequate policy and funding to ensure it is spread throughout the country, the committee was told. The success of “drug-testing” tents at UK festivals was referred to.

Committee chair Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, noting there were “strong” views by committee members on several of the issues raised, said it would produce a report after the summer recess.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times