Cannabis possession in Ireland now warrants a trip to a health practitioner rather than the police station
The Irish government has launched a new drug policy which will see first offenders caught in possession of cannabis or any illegal drug directed to the health system for assessment rather than the justice system for prosecution. The announcement was cautiously welcomed by cannabis advocacy groups who see this as only a small step in the right direction at a time when a giant leap was required. Under the new policy, anyone caught in possession of any quantity of illegal drugs will be sent for a (mandatory) health assessment. A second offence will see the person receive an adult caution, and if caught a third time the ‘culprit’ will enter the justice system and will be prosecuted.
Irish MP welcomes news
Irish parliament member and cannabis activist Gino Kenny welcomed the news but he feels a lot more should have been done. “While I welcome the policy of diverting those caught in possession of drugs for personal use into the health system rather than the criminal justice system, I believe that limiting it to the first offence is effectively a halfway house rather than the full decriminalisation that is warranted.” Mr Kenny also notes that what exactly the ‘health assessment’ entails has not been made clear.
Those addicted to hard drugs such as heroin, for example, may benefit from medical treatment but those caught in possession of cannabis are simply clogging up an already oversaturated health system. The idea of someone caught with cannabis having to attend a health assessment to dissuade them from consuming cannabis in a time when more and more medicinal benefits of cannabis are emerging is in itself ironic. What is confusing with this new policy is that if a first offence is considered a health concern, why is every offence not considered a health concern? Rather than involve the justice system and the huge expenses associated with it, why not leave it as a health matter entirely?
Ireland could follow Portugal’s example
Ireland is lagging behind more progressive countries such as Portugal who in 2001 decriminalized the possession of drugs completely, viewing possession of drugs as a health matter regardless of the number of times caught. Since then Portugal has seen opioid overdose deaths reduce by 80%, along with problematic drug use and drug-related imprisonment drop significantly. 1 in 4 Irish people have taken illicit drugs at some stage in their lives and cannabis is quite popular as a medicinal as well as a recreational drug.
It is very easy to conceal cannabis and as such, it is rare for Irish citizens to be caught in possession. For some marginalised people this is not the case. Homeless people living on the streets who consume illegal drugs are the most vulnerable to these new policy changes. This new policy will affect these people the most. Citizens who for one reason or another find themselves on the fringes of society will now be sent for assessment and if history repeats itself, eventually imprisoned.
It is such an unfortunate case that the expert group who reviewed the policy on behalf of the Irish government did not follow Portugal’s lead and change drug use to a medical issue outright and not just for first-time offenders. According to this expert group, full decriminalization is “not legally possible”. Gino Kenny is now calling for a legal review of the new government policy seeking answers as to why full decriminalisation is not legally possible. He is also seeking to implement further changes to expunge those convicted of possession of cannabis.
Ireland recently changed its laws to allow medicinal cannabis for people with certain diseases that are not responsive to pharmaceutical medicines such as epilepsy and MS. These changes are welcomed, yet Ireland is still an island with a foot in both conservative and liberal waters in a time when the Irish populace demands a jump into the deep end.