Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has denied the country is ‘sleepwalking’ into the legalisation of cannabis.
Proposals that aim to soften punishments around possession of drugs for personal use are due before the cabinet in the coming weeks.
Under these new plans, someone caught in possession of a small amount of a drug such as cannabis will be referred to an addiction or counselling service rather than being prosecuted.
The new laws will stop short of full decriminalisation, however, as some criminal sanctions are expected to remain in place.
Divisions remain within the Government as to the merit of the proposals, which have yet to be finalised.
Some Cabinet ministers are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of liberalising the current rules around the use and possession of cannabis.
At a Fine Gael canvass in Dublin, Mr Flanagan defended the new proposals while responding to a group of senior doctors who raised concerns over the legalisation of the drug.
Those doctors, who treat patients with cannabis-related issues, sent a letter to The Irish Times claiming that Ireland is “sleepwalking” into the legalisation of cannabis, based on misinformation. The Cannabis Risk Alliance, a group of 20 senior doctors from across the medical community, has said cannabis is now the most common illegal drug involved in new treatment episodes in the country’s addiction centres and psychiatric hospitals.
The minister said: “Over the past number of months, we have been engaged on a cross-departmental level and I believe the report, when published, will be balanced.
"But I’m not going to pre-empt its findings until such times as it goes before government which I would expect to happen in the next three to four weeks."
Catherine Byrne, the Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy, is currently considering the findings of a working group set up in 2017 to consider alternative approaches to handling drug possession for personal use. She is expected to produce the findings in Cabinet in the coming weeks. The group was unable to produce an agreed report.
Health Minister Simon Harris has sought to address the concerns of medics by insisting there are “no plans” for the general legalisation of cannabis.
His department is to announce an access programme for medicinal cannabis in the coming weeks. Doctors will no longer have to receive a licence from the minister before prescribing cannabis for patients with certain conditions.
Although some patients have received permission to use externally sourced products, it is expected that the department will shortly announce the first Irish supply.
Responding to the doctors’ warning, Gino Kenny of People Before Profit described their comments as an insult to those campaigning for access to medicinal cannabis.
He said that the prohibition of the drug has failed and said it is nonsense to suggest that cannabis is a gateway drug to more harmful drugs.
It is more than two years since the Government announced that a medicinal cannabis access programme was to be established, but significant delays have occurred. Problems finding a quality assured supplier of cannabis and a supplier that can export its products to Ireland have been the primary cause of delay.