The proposals would free up to 60,000 hours of Garda time that is currently spent arresting and prosecuting such offenders.
A landmark report by the Oireachtas justice committee, has “strongly” recommended the adoption of a Portugese-type model, whereby drug users are diverted from the criminal justice system to education and treatment this freing up police resources to target traffickers and dealers.
It is the first time a state or government body has called for the effective decriminalisation of drug use — with the caveat that gardaí would exercise discretion and retain the right to prosecute.
While the committee members did not want to describe their proposals as decriminalisation, the Portugese model is considered by the EU drugs agency as involving “decriminalisation”.
“Drugs are not going to be legal — it is not legal in Portugal — but they [drug users] should not be criminalised,” said Fine Gael committee chairman David Stanton. “For a lot of people this is radical, for some, it’s not.”
He said it would still be an offence to possess drugs for personal use, but that it would be a “civil or administrative” breach of the law.
The report said the system had to be “appropriately resourced” by way of assessment, training, education, and treatment.
In Portugal, police can refer users to local committees, called commissions for the dissuasion of drug abuse. They are staffed by a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal expert.
Mr Stanton said the Portugese model, introduced in 2001, had resulted in a fall in HIV rates and deaths from HIV. He said, as a result, drug use had not worsened and, in many instances, had gone down.
He said the informal feedback to the model from gardaí “was quite positive”.
CSO figures show there were more than 11,000 recorded offences of drug possession for personal use in each of the last two years — accounting for 72% of all drug offences.
There was widespread welcome of the report at the launch, including from Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign, Ana Liffey Drug Project, Merchants Quay Ireland, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and UISCE.
Anna Quigley of Citywide said the Portugese “don’t claim to have solved the problem” and further believed that unless the resources were there it was “not going to work”.
Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell said: “I’m not convinced this is radical: It’s a 40-year realisation that the existing approach to drugs is a complete and utter failure.”
He expressed a hope the next government would make the right decision and said a cross-departmental expert group should be set up.
Senator Ivana Bacik, TCD law professor, said the proposal had been built on existing models of harm reduction and diversion in Ireland.