Gardaí and the DPP are examining applying cautions rather than pursuing criminal prosecutions for people caught in possession of drugs for personal use.
In an official statement, Garda HQ said it was working on the implementation of such a system following the recommendation of a Government working group on alternative sanctions for drug possession.
The development comes in advance of the publication of the working group report and the bringing of proposals by the Department of Health, based on the report, to Cabinet for decision.
The Garda initiative has emerged following queries from the Irish Examiner.
The Garda statement said that currently, possession of drugs for personal use (also known as simple possession) is an offence under Section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
It said the offence is currently not included in the Adult Caution Scheme, where a caution is applied to an offender as an alternative to prosecution in the courts and possible criminal record.
The Garda statement says: “However, following the recommendation of a government-appointed working group, AGS [An Garda Síochána] and the DPP are consulting on how to incorporate Section 3 Misuse of Drugs Act (simple possession) into the adult caution scheme.”
It's not clear if further changes would be made to the adult caution scheme. Currently, it is for a first offence and for someone “unlikely to reoffend” and “should be applied only once”.
But it may “in exceptional circumstances” be applied a subsequent occasion.
Currently, only certain relatively minor offences are included in the adult caution scheme, such as public order offences and certain minor theft and assault cases.
Including drug possession in the scheme would be considered a “half way house” between the criminalisation and decriminalisation.
Under decriminalisation, while possession of drugs is still illegal, criminal sanction is removed.
The Irish Examiner reported last February that the group was favouring a “diversion scheme” in which drug possession would still remain a criminal offence but people would be referred for “health intervention” and that the adult caution scheme might be expanded.
Former minister for drugs, Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the move was a “step forward” but said he hoped the Cabinet's plan would include it as part of a “far more rounded intervention”.
He said: “It is a tweaking, a not insubstantial tweaking. I'm not criticising it, but I'm hoping for an awful lot more.
“It is a criminal sanction still, not as heavy as before, and that is progress. It's better than it was, but not what was hoped for – which was cultural change in seeing drug addiction and use as a medical issue.”
He asked what was the next step after giving a caution, what else was provided and what happened if there was a second offence.
Dr Bobby Smyth, child and adolescent psychiatrist, said decriminalisation meant the removal of a criminal sanction – and that was what adult caution was.
“It is particularly unfortunate that at a time that cocaine use appears to be escalating and there's an epidemic of cannabis dependency, the only thing the Department of Health is talking about are these initiatives, which is all about softening up our response to drug use," he said.
He said he was worried that society was saying “drugs isn't such a problem” and that the risk was this would “nudge usage upwards” and with it, harm from use.
“My concern is that it will push use up and the last thing we want to do is put oil on the fire," he said.
Tony Duffin, CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project said: “It is our understanding that using criminal justice mechanisms like the Adult Cautioning Scheme to address personal drug use would not be consistent with a health led approach.
The Department of Health said: “The report of the Working Group is under consideration by the Ministers for Health and for Justice and Equality with a view to preparing a Memorandum for Government and publishing the report. There is no further comment regarding a time frame for cabinet or publishing.”