New cannabis caution scheme sees drop in numbers charged for possession

Fall in number brought to court for possession comes amid international trend towards legalisation

The number of people who were charged or issued with a summons in relation to the possession of drugs fell sharply in 2021 after the introduction of a scheme allowing for cannabis possession to be dealt with by way of a caution.

The fall by almost half in the number of people being brought to court for cannabis possession comes against an international trend towards legalisation, but also warnings from the psychiatric profession as to the harmful effects of the drug.

Figures released by the Garda Press Office show that, up to December 14th, 5,957 people were issued with a summons or charged in relation to the possession of drugs for their own use (simple possession). This compares with 11,127 in 2020, and 9,923 the year before that.

The sharp decline is due to the expansion in December 2020 of the Adult Cautioning Scheme to cover section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which relates to simple possession of an illegal drug. The expansion only applied to the simple possession of cannabis or cannabis resin.

The cautioning scheme, which is operated by An Garda Síochána along with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, was expanded in relation to possession of cannabis for your own use, as well as trespass, casual trading without a licence, and laws to do with access to certain events.

The sharp reduction in people being brought to court for the simple possession of cannabis comes against a backdrop of countries across Europe considering changes to the law in relation to the drug.

In December, Malta became the first EU member state to legalise the possession of cannabis, or its cultivation, for personal use.

Adults are allowed to carry up to seven grams of the drug, and to grow up to four plants at home. They are not allowed smoke it in public, or in front of children.

Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland are considering moves to accommodate possession of the drug for personal use, and Italy is to hold a referendum on the issue.

Potency

Last year the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland said that the increasing potency of cannabis, and the widespread public conception that it was harmless, was having “devastating effects”.

Motivated by concern that psychiatric services could be overrun by a surge in people needing treatment for mental health issues related to the drug, the college said it was the “gravest threat” to the mental health of young people in Ireland.

An estimated 45,000 people aged between 15 and 34 years meet the criteria for cannabis dependence, the college said.

“As many as one in three young people who use cannabis weekly or more often will likely become addicted,” Dr Gerry McCarney, a consultant child and adolescent addiction psychiatrist, told The Irish Times.

“When you consider how potent the drug has become in recent years, it is obvious we are facing a perfect storm which has the potential to overrun our psychiatric services.”

The Garda figures for 2021 show that, up to December 14th, there were only 60 charges issued in relation to the cultivation of cannabis or opium poppy plants, down from 178 the previous year.

There were less than 10 summonses issued for this category of offence in 2021, compared with 132 in 2020.

In relation to possession of drugs for supply, there were 1,283 charges or summonses issued in 2021, compared to 1,968 in 2020.

During 2020, the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau seized drugs worth €36.7 million. This compared with drugs worth €21.3 million in 2019. The figures for last year are not yet available.