Are We There Yet? – Ireland’s Adult Cautioning Scheme

Nicholas investigates the newly amended laws regarding the possession of small amounts of cannabis.  Individuals caught with cannabis for personal use are now processed through the adult caution system where they will be referred to healthcare services, avoiding prosecution and a criminal record.

The common perception of cannabis consumption is that it is nothing short of criminal behaviour and those who partake are simply engaging in a life of crime.  This has facilitated the belief that those who consume cannabis, only do so because they are criminals.  The illegality of cannabis has cultivated the stigma that those who are arrested for possession are no different than violent thieves and should incur the full wrath of the justice system.  This belief is easy to maintain as those arrested are nameless faces to the public eye, left for the mind to profile as villainousness thugs, hellbent on enabling others to participate in what the uninformed consider to be not only an addictive substance but also a drug that prompts its users to engage in violent activity. 

This stigma is nothing new nor exclusive to Ireland.  The history of controlling cannabis narratives has dated centuries, as a means of controlling the population and to keep order intact.  However, in recent times, many are waking up to the realisation that cannabis consumption is becoming more and more common among different backgrounds and age groups.  Whatever fear cannabis may have had attributed to it has fallen to the wayside as more and more people engage in recreational usage and experimentation.  Most people, at the very least, know of someone that has experimented with cannabis, the anonymous boogieman of weed culture has died along with the hivemind complex that ensured cannabis usage remained a criminal activity in the eyes of the public.  As these barriers fall with each year, public perception changed along with it.  And while we have a long road ahead of us in terms of cannabis reform, we can be pleased that certain aspects of the law are diminished to reflect what we now know of the drug. 

On the 2nd of August 2019, it was announced following the government’s new National Drugs Strategy, that first- and second-time drug offenders will avoid a criminal conviction for possession in a policy that looks to focus on the health of the individual rather than criminality of drug use.  The policy came into operation in 2020 after being announced by the Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, and the Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne.  This initiative now allows those caught with possession to be referred to the HSE for a health screening for their first offence.  Upon a second offence, the Gardai will have the discretion to give an adult caution.  Upon a third offence, Gardai will treat it within the criminal justice system as it was, before the initiative.  This will dramatically cut down on the 12,000+ incidents of drug possession for personal use, as recorded in 2017. 

At the launch, Simon Harris stated: “This approach will not decriminalise drug use; it is a mechanism to defer people to health and social services for help and support. Ministers Flanagan, Byrne and I are very clear that there are no plans to legalise any type of drugs, including cannabis.”

Nevertheless, this is a step forward in the treatment of those who recreationally or medically use cannabis, as this new health-led approach to tackling illegal drug use will aid the user in getting treatment rather than slapping a drug conviction to their name, essentially destroying their opportunities later in life.  The new measures will incur €750,000 a year in staff costs to facilitate the 10,000 additional health screenings needed to implement the new measures.   In the end, people caught with cannabis will be connected to those in the health services as a means to support the individual in their road to recovery. 

While campaigners for cannabis reform sought to bring about the decriminalisation of smaller amounts of drugs, this was described as a “significant day” for Irish society by Harris.   Despite the lack of compassion Harris has demonstrated in the roll-out of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme, this initiative at least recognises drug users as human beings instead of hardened criminals.

The process of being deferred to the HSE begins upon the Gardai finding that the individual is in possession of an illegal drug.  They will refer them to a screening service provided by the HSE where they will have an intervention with a Healthcare Worker.  Should the Healthcare Worker identify that the individual has a drug problem, they will be offered treatment.  Depending on the circumstances, the person may also be referred to social services or harm reduction to aid in their recovery.  Attendance of this process is then confirmed to the Gardai. 

This initiative came about after a public consultation into the matter.  From a questionnaire launched in 2016 [1], nearly 90% of the respondents supported the removal of criminal penalties for drug possession of small amounts.  From the data, the majority agreed the elimination of these penalties would encourage people to seek treatment for their drug use.  

This is a far cry from Portugal’s model.  In 2001, the Portuguese government decriminalised illegal drug use, a move that led to a dramatic reduction in drug-related crimes.  Instead of being brought before the criminal courts, Portuguese users will be forced to appear in front of a special addiction panel.  While this results in additional costs for the healthcare sector, it greatly reduces the costs to the state to imprison the individual. 

Possession for personal use should never be indictable.  With a system that offers multiple adult cautions and diversions to treatment as alternatives, the individual can seek for resolve in their addiction or dependence.  This behaviour can stem from personal factors such as the environments we are raised in, to the hereditary nature of drug use.  We are making the necessary steps forward as a country in acknowledging that people caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis are not the criminals the public psyche may consider them to be.  We are a long way from decriminalisation, but the introduction of this scheme demonstrates we are breaking the shackles of ignorance and control, as we move towards open channels of communication on drug use and how the government appropriately manages the rise of recreational cannabis use in Ireland.


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