Cannabis and decriminalisation

Health diversion approach would require a massive expansion of service places

Letter of the Day
Letter of the Day

Sir, – I write in relation to Ryan McHale’s letter about the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use recommendation on decriminalisation (Letters, June 17th).

He is correct, I believe, in contending that the proposed diversion scheme would be used mainly for persons who use cannabis, and who do not need treatment. As matters currently stand, according to National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS), 8 per cent of 2,240 drug treatment cases in 2022 – the last year for which data is available – were justice related referrals (courts, police, probation services) as compared to 3 per cent for other drugs.

Meanwhile, the National Drugs and Alcohol Survey, 2019/2020 (NDAS) estimated that 231,000 adults had last year use of cannabis and 113,000 had last month. Thus, for each of the 2,240 current year reported treatment case for cannabis, there is potentially, between 50 and 100 other persons who could be stopped or arrested for cannabis possession and diverted to treatment.

The health diversion approach therefore would require a massive expansion of service places. While the international literature on drug treatment, especially harm reduction, is robust and generally adhered to by Irish-based services, there is no substantial high-quality evidence to support the use of involuntary treatment, such as health diversion, for drug problems, in general, let alone for cannabis.


One ultimate consequence of introducing health diversion for persons who are caught in possession of cannabis would be to remove these services from public provision altogether and radically increase the number of private treatment places, with those so referred being required to pay for their own treatment, if they can afford to.

This is already the case with court-mandated treatment for persons with driving under the influence (DUI) offences in some US states, with little evidence of effectiveness.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use proposal on decriminalisation was a genuine attempt by its members to recommend a meaningful alternative to the status quo, which it overwhelmingly rejected. The assembly, however, was perhaps badly informed about health diversion, especially given that proposals for this approach have already been government policy for several years and have lacked any proper attempt at implementation.

There is, undoubtedly, a need to invest in treatment services but that should not be on the basis of bringing into treatment persons who do not need treatment. More focus on persons who are high-risk with complex needs and who require access to harm reduction, safe consumption and safe injection facilities should be prioritised. Meanwhile, a rethink of the legal alternatives to the status quo is also needed and the newly constituted Oireachtas Committee on Drugs, in the short time available to it, should examine and address these alternatives. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 8.