Proposals to liberalise the laws on cannabis and other illegal drugs are expected to be brought before Cabinet within weeks.
The plans envisage a move to providing drug counselling, addiction treatment and other health interventions for many users found in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
However, they will stop short of “full-blown” decriminalisation of the personal possession of drugs and some criminal sanctions are expected to remain on the statute book, according to sources.
There remain serious differences within Government on the proposals, which have yet to be finalised. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has privately expressed concerns about any proposal to decriminalise the personal possession of drugs, it is understood.
The Department of Health, meanwhile, said on Monday alternative approaches to criminal sanctions were being considered with a view to treating misuse and drug addiction “as a public health issue” in line with the National Drugs Strategy.
It was responding to concerns expressed by 20 senior doctors treating patients for cannabis-related issues in a letter to The Irish Times on Monday. They claimed Ireland was "sleepwalking" into legalisation of the drug on the back of misinformation and a "one-sided debate".
No agreed report
A working group was set up in 2017 to examine alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. That group has now reported to the Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne.
She is considering its findings and is expected to bring plans to Cabinet within the next three weeks.
The working group was unable to produce an agreed report on the issue. The group, which was chaired by retired judge Garrett Sheehan, produced a majority report, which itself contained “qualifications”, as well as a minority report, The Irish Times understands.
The departments considering the report held a meeting in recent days in which the issue was discussed.
“If you get caught in the possession of drugs, the question is what first and where to first, is it the gardaí or is it an addiction service. It is unlikely that there will be a full-blown decriminalisation recommended,” one source said.
Separately, an access programme for medicinal cannabis is to be announced by the Department of Health within weeks.
This will remove the requirement for doctors to secure a licence from the Minister before prescribing cannabis for patients with certain conditions.
While a small number of patients are currently permitted to use cannabis product they have sourced abroad, the department is expected to announce shortly that the first Irish supplies of medicinal cannabis have been sourced.
There was a mixed response to the warnings from the doctors who have set up a campaigning group, the Cannabis Risk Alliance. People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny described the doctors’ remarks as an insult for people campaigning access to medicinal cannabis, while campaigner Vera Twomey, mother of eight-year-old Ava Barry, who has been granted a licence to use medicinal cannabis for her epilepsy, said she was “repulsed” by some of the terminology in the letter.
Welcoming the doctors’ intervention in the debate on cannabis, anti-drugs campaigner Grainne Kenny said politicians were soft on the issue because “there are votes in it”.