Frontline drug workers say landmark Government changes to drug possession sanctions are a “good start” but criticise the “three strikes and you’re out” approach in the plans.
Hailed by Health Minister Simon Harris as inaugurating a “new era”, the Government’s plans include a new health-led diversion system for those caught in possession of drugs for personal use. People will be referred to a health worker by gardaí for a first offence and, for a second offence, gardaí will use discretion to issue an adult caution and/or refer them again to a health worker. For a third or subsequent offence, the person will be arrested, as currently, and processed through the criminal justice system.
The new system, set to be in place by autumn 2020, is based on the report of a State working group, which recommended that people should have a “minimum” of three referrals to a health worker before the criminal process would kick in.
The report recommended that possession of drugs for personal use should not be decriminalised, a view backed by the Government.
The report and the Government plans, revealed in the Irish Examiner last week, were launched by Mr Harris, Drugs Strategy Minister Catherine Byrne, and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.
Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign said: “It defies logic to determine that a first offence is met with a health- led response, while any subsequent offences are met with a criminal justice response. It means those with the most difficult drug problems will be the ones more likely to be criminalised.”
Mark Costello of Uisce, an advocacy group for people who use drugs, said: “I have a lot of questions, but I think it’s a good start.”
He said there will be a “lot of teething problems”, including among young people who don’t see their personal drug use as a problem, and therefore think they do not need a health intervention.
He said the limit of two offences was like a “three strikes and you’re out” approach, adding: “I don’t think that’s enough.”
Sadie Grace, of the National Family Support Network, said it welcomed the “shift to a health-led approach” but added: “However, we are disappointed that the proposals do not go far enough and decriminalise personal drug use.”
While welcoming diversion on a first offence, she said further referrals to adult cautions and the criminal justice system neglected to understand “the complexities of chronic addiction”.
Catherine Comiskey, vice-chair of the scientific committee of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said: “My feeling is that it’s a step in the right direction. But we need evaluation of it.”