Decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use considered

Growing calls in recent years for the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use

The decriminalisation of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis, for personal use is one of the policy options outlined in the forthcoming National Drug Strategy.

Minister of State for Drugs Catherine Byrne will publish the strategy – which will govern all drugs policy from now until 2020 – before the summer.

It proposes a group be established to “consider the approaches taken in other jurisdictions to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use”.

There have been growing calls in recent years, including from Ms Byrne’s predecessor Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, for the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.


Those in favour argue criminalising possession of small quantities of drugs is counter-productive for the individual and expensive for society, and that it would be more productive to provide quick referrals to treatment services.

The latest draft of the strategy, seen by The Irish Times, says the group should examine the "rationale" and "effectiveness" of the current criminal-justice approach and compare it with other jurisdictions.

Legislative changes

The advantages and disadvantages of other approaches for “the individual, family and society” should be considered, along with the legislative changes necessary to introduce alternatives to the regime where people found in possession of small quantities of drugs face arrest, prosecution and possible imprisonment.

A “cost benefit analysis of alternative approaches to criminal sanctions for simple possession offences” should be conducted, and the group should “make recommendations to the relevant Minister within 12 months”.

One of the first countries to decriminalise drugs for personal use was Portugal in 2000. It saw a dramatic fall in the number of overdoses, new HIV cases and an increase in numbers seeking treatment.

The document notes increased use of cannabis and ecstasy, particularly among young people, and a “rise in cannabis-related problems...associated with...more potent strains”.

Current users

It says the number of young people who describe themselves as current users of cannabis “has almost doubled since 2002/3”.

The strategy also calls for expanded services targeting people aged under 18, Travellers, members of the LGBTQ community and pregnant drug users.

Ageing heroin users are an emerging cohort with particular health needs, including “dental deterioration and special health needs caused by long-term drug use”. Their needs should be assessed and targeted services developed.

"Of grave concern is the unacceptably high rate of drug-related deaths in Ireland. There is an average of one death a day due to poisoning [overdose]. The number of drug-related deaths rose between 2005 [505] and 2013 [679]."

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times