Concerns at plans to relax drug laws

The ‘Irish Examiner’ reported this week on the proposed options for a more liberalised, health-based approach to dealing with people caught with small amounts of drugs.

Concerns at plans to relax drug laws

On Thursday in Donegal, the Cabinet met for the last time before the summer recess.

While the 2026 Ryder Cup and Boris Johnson caught the headlines, one highly sensitive item was discussed and approved, but escaped attention.

Ministers were asked to approve a memorandum from Health Minister Simon Harris and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan relating to consider “alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use”.

Serious concerns about the Government’s plan to relax the country’s drugs laws are today laid bare and we can show how ministers pressed ahead regardless.

The Irish Examiner has seen the top-secret Cabinet memo, approved by ministers on Thursday despite warnings from the Attorney General, An Garda Síochána, junior defence minister Paul Kehoe, and the DPP

irector of Public Prosecutions.

The memo reveals how:

  • The chairman of the Government’s own working group, retired Court of Appeal judge Garett Sheehan, felt the need to submit his own minority report strongly warning against any decriminalisation;
  • The Government rejected two recommendations from its working group relating to not jailing those caught with drugs for personal use and erasing convictions for drugs possession for personal use amid “strong reservations” from An Garda Síochána, the DPP, and academic expert Tom O’Malley.
  • The Government is examining a new law which would see a specific offence of “grooming children, through inducements such as the provisions of drugs or by other means, for the commission of drug-related crime with a view to combatting any potential exploitation of children”.
  • Mr Kehoe expressed concern that liberalising the drugs law would negatively impact military personnel. He warned drug misuse has serious implications for the safety of both the public and Defence Forces personnel. Accordingly, there is a requirement for specific arrangements in the Defence Forces, he argued.
  • The 12-page Cabinet memo sought approval from ministers to note the report and recommendations of the working group, and the ministers’ intentions to publish the report and the chair’s minority report.

    It also sought approval to agree to progress to implementing a health diversion approach whereby a person in possession of drugs, determined by gardaí to be for personal use, on the first occasion, would be referred n a mandatory basis to the HSE for a health screening and brief intervention, and on the second occasion gardaí would have the discretion to issue an adult caution.

    The memo also noted that the two recommendations 10.2.1 and 10.2.2 in the report, relating to not jailing persons caught with drugs and the issue of spent convictions, “will not be considered further in light of significant concerns raised by two members of the working group”.

    The memo set out the three key policy options to allow the Government to move to a more liberalised, health-based approach to dealing with people caught with small amounts of drugs.

    As revealed by the Irish Examiner’s Cormac O’Keeffe earlier this week, those were:

  • Extending the use of adult cautions, which has already been taken to include minor drugs offences and the Gardaí and the DPP are looking at how to implement this;
  • The working group also proposed the use of multiple adult cautions;
  • Diversion to the health service: People found with drugs would be diverted to the HSE for health screening and intervention. This option would see drugs possession remaining as an offence, but would allow people one more chance to avoid criminal conviction.
  • Of the options not recommended, the Cabinet was told that the Working Group noted difficulties with decriminalisation in the Irish legal context. For an offence to be decriminalised, it would need to be removed from the Statute Book by amending Section 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Act so that possessing drugs for personal use would no longer be an offence. This may lead to de facto legalisation of drugs. Therefore, the working group did not recommend this option as appropriate.

    In relation to fixed charge penalties, one barrier identified is the evidence that may be required for the prosecution of a Section 3 offence if it eventually ended up in court for the non-payment of the fine.

    Ministers were told in the memo that the report contains reservation from three of the members of the group; the representative of the DPP, An Garda Síochána and the academic expert, Tom O’Malley.

    Neither the DPP nor An Garda Síochána endorses recommendations 10.2.1 (that imprisonment is no longer an outcome for possession of drugs for personal use) and 10.2.2 (that all convictions for drug possession for personal use can be spent. In addition, the group recommends decreasing the seven-year period to three years between the conviction and it becoming spent).

    An Garda Síochána also stated that they cannot recommend Option 2 relating to multiple adult cautions.

    But most explosive of all was the fact that a ‘minority report’ from the chair was delivered to Mr Harris, Mr Flanagan, and junior health minister Catherine Byrne on March 29.

    “This document outlines his disagreement with any changes to drug laws that might be interpreted as normalising drug use, especially in the context of on-going violence linked to the drug trade,” the memo states.

    “He recommends that Government resists calls for decriminalisation; that they restore the rule of law; that drug rehabilitation programmes be urgently audited and evaluated; that people are educated about the dangers of drug use and that there is a greater policing of recreational drug use.”

    The Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe, set out a number of concerns in his observations to the proposal.

    Firstly, he said the potential issue in this recommendation would appear to be the mandatory aspect of such a programme in terms of the personal rights of a person detected in possession of illegal drugs being directed to attend for medical assessment.

    He said such a diversion scheme would require measured legislative implementation, careful to avoid becoming a punitive measure by being proportionate in terms of how a person would be diverted to the health services in a given situation.

    He also said such a scheme would need to be procedurally robust, fair, and transparent in terms of how Gardaí/DPP would apply this option on a day-to-day basis.

    “In particular, significant consideration may need to be afforded to the procedures for admitting such a person to the proposed scheme, such as whether an admission of the offence would be necessary; a caution would be required; or any formal interviews or assessments be undertaken,” he warned.

    Ultimately, Mr Harris and Mr Flanagan acknowledged the difficulties posed by removing the offence of personal possession from the statute books, which would mean that An Garda Síochána would no longer have the power to stop and search people. That removal of the offence could lead to de facto legalisation.

    “There are no plans to legalise any controlled drugs in Ireland. Therefore, the ministers agree that the possession of drugs for personal use should remain a criminal offence, in order to mitigate the risks identified by the group,” the memo concludes.

    They set out that what is intended is that when a person is caught the first time, they will be diverted to the HSE and on the second occasion they would be subject to an adult caution.

    This means a person would have to be caught three times with drugs before being criminally convicted.

    In the end, the memo was approved by the Cabinet, despite the concerns raised.

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