Give Me a Crash Course In . . . the temporary legalisation of ecstasy

How it happened and what the Government has done about it

So once-illicit drugs became legal this week. That's a surprise Possession of some psychoactive drugs did, briefly. Minister for Health Leo Varadkar confirmed on Tuesday that possessing certain drugs was no longer illegal, following a court case. He stressed that the sale, supply, import and export of the drugs remained illegal.

Exactly which drugs are we talking about? Ecstasy, magic mushrooms, benzodiazepines, ketamine, khat and some "head-shop drugs" were among those involved. The legal judgment had no implications for 125 or so other substances, including cannabis, heroin and cocaine.

How on earth did this happen? The State successfully defended a challenge to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 in a High Court hearing in March 2014. The case then went to the Court of Appeal. Concerning the prosecution of one Stanislav Bederev for possession for sale of methylethcathinone, it dealt with the Government's power to control substances harmful to human health under Section 2 (2) of the Act. The subsection was found to be unconstitutional, so possession of any of the substances it was meant to control then ceased to be an offence.

Did the Government accept that? The Government moved quickly to address the situation, rushing emergency legislation through the Dáil on Tuesday and the Seanad on Wednesday, with the co-operation of the Opposition. President Michael D Higgins signed the Bill into law; the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) 2015 Bill amended the 1977 Act.

The media must have had fun with this story It was pretty irresistible. Media outlets all over the world picked up on the unusual development. Here at home the satirical website Waterford Whispers News led the way in lampooning the loophole, with a series of irreverent tweets. Ecstasy reunion parties were being organised in clubs and pubs across the country, it joked.

Leo Varadkar is a doctor isn't he? Yes, and, wearing his doctor's hat, he gave a stern warning about the possible side effects of the drugs. "They all have very significant health risks that outweigh any perceived recreational benefit," he said, adding that in some cases taking the drugs could lead to death and disability.

But wait: could people who have been charged with drug-related offences get off? Varadkar said he had been told that "dozens" of cases could be affected by the ruling; the legal expert Garnet Orange SC warned that the ruling would undermine forthcoming criminal prosecutions. The Minister said that each case would be analysed but that anything to do with the prosecutions of individuals would be considered on a case-by-case basis by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who acts independently of the Government.

Did the Government know this was coming? It had anticipated the possibility of such an outcome and had drafted emergency legislation that had been approved by Cabinet last January, so it was prepared.

What's the next step? New legislation is planned for later in the year, to reform the area. The Government is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court, but Varadkar said the Coalition had to act immediately.

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