Former judge ‘rejects’ calls to decriminalise drugs
Chair of expert group warns Government against moves that ‘normalise’ drug use
‘To adopt a policy of decriminalisation, or to take steps in that direction, is to throw in the towel on the potential of young people,’ writes Garret Sheehan in his minority report. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters
The chairman of an expert group on personal drug possession has advised the Government to “strongly resist and reject all calls for decriminalisation of controlled drugs”.
In a minority report, Garret Sheehan said he found himself “in disagreement with a number of the conclusions of the majority of the members of the working group, as expressed in their report” . The retired Court of Appeal judge said he regards any form of decriminalisation of drug use as being “inimical to the best interests of our country”.
The working group was set up by the Government to examine alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. It recommended adult cautions where personal possession is discovered and a diversion programme whereby users would be directed towards health interventions. The Cabinet discussed the majority report at its meeting on Thursday last.
However, in his minority report seen by The Irish Times, Mr Justice Sheehan has said he is against leaving “any form of decriminalisation on the table as an option” and opposed to making any legal changes “which might be seen as tending towards the normalisation of drug use”.
“To adopt a policy of decriminalisation, or to take steps in that direction, is to throw in the towel on the potential of young people,” writes Mr Sheehan.
“We need to realise that the illicit drug trade threatens the democratic fabric of our society and contributes significantly to inequality.”
He called on the Government to “immediately set about the daunting task of restoring the rule of law to every community” and recommended that all publicly funded drug rehabilitation programmes be “urgently audited and evaluated”.
Mr Sheehan was one of the first solicitors appointed to the superior courts. As a solicitor he specialised in criminal law and helped set up the Prisoners’ Rights Organisation.
Mr Sheehan warns that if an extension of the adult caution scheme is introduced, this “significant policy change” must be closely monitored.
While the complete elimination of drug use among young people may not be possible, a major educational programme which presents drug taking socially unacceptable and warns about the “grave dangers of cannabis use” may help reduce consumption, noted Mr Justice Sheehan.
He warns of a “significant increase” in the consumption of cocaine, prescription drugs and other illegal substances in recent times in Ireland, with nearly 19,000 high risk opioid users in the State and at least 35,000 problematic cannabis users in need of treatment.
“Very little weight” should be attached to research commissioned by the Department of Health on the topic, noting that 82 per cent of those who responded to the online poll admitted to having previously taken drugs, notes the report.
The former judge also writes that while Captain Joseph Shellhammer of the Northern Colorado Drug Force, who engaged with the working group, originally supported the legalisation of cannabis, he is now among a growing group of people who “deeply regretted” the decision to legalise the drug following an increase in drug gangs, road traffic deaths, and a three-fold growth in the black market.
None of those who advocated for decriminalisation engaged adequately with how such a policy change might affect the violence associated with the drug market, wrote Mr Sheehan, adding that at present, the threat of imprisonment can act as a catalyst for undergoing treatment.