Belfast Telegraph

New era for drug laws ‘will treat addicts as human beings’

Anyone in possession of drugs for personal use will, on the first occasion, be referred to the Health Service Executive.

Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)
Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

A series of Government reforms that will see first and second-time drug offenders avoid a criminal conviction has been hailed as a new era in how Ireland treats people affected by drugs.

The changes mean anyone in possession of drugs for personal use will, on the first occasion, be referred on a mandatory basis to the Health Service Executive (HSE) or a health screening and brief intervention.

On the second occasion, gardai will have discretion to issue an adult caution.

The changes were announced by Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister of State Catherine Byrne and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan in Dublin on Friday.

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Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister of State Catherine Byrne and Justin Minister Charlie Flanagan launching a series of new reforms that will see first and second time drug offenders escape a criminal conviction.Picture by Cate McCurry.

The new measures were introduced following a report by a working group set up to consider alternative approaches to possession of drugs for personal use.

The Government said it did not consider the report’s recommendations on imprisonment for drug possession and spent convictions.

Speaking in Dublin, Mr Harris said: “This shift in our response to drug misuse represents a new era in how we treat those affected by drug use. One that affords them their human rights and their dignity. 

“We have to stop looking at people with drug addiction just through the criminal justice lens.

“We have to realise they’re human beings. They are family members, they could be our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, they’re human beings.

“They deserve second chances, they deserve our support and our health services needs to face up to its responsibility.

“We are neglecting that responsibility if we believe that the only solution to drug addiction is the criminal justice system.

“This new direction will prevent a significant number of citizens from facing the struggle of a criminal record.

“For a country who likes to consider itself progressive, tolerant and inclusive, the way we have treated people with drug addiction through just the criminal justice system was regressive and does belong in a different era.

“The idea that the first point of contact that anyone in this situation has is the justice rather than the health system was frustrating.

“We badly need this compassionate, health-led response to addiction.”

He denied that it was an attempt to decriminalise drugs, now or in the future.

Under the Health Diversion Approach, a person in possession of drugs for personal use would engage with the HSE to attend health screening and brief intervention, known as SAOR.

Health professionals in community healthcare organisations will deliver the service for people referred by gardai.

The adult caution scheme allows gardai to issue a formal caution, instead of pursuing a prosecution, in relation to a number of offences.

Mr Flanagan said he will also examine the possibility of introducing a specific offence of grooming children, through inducements such as the provision of drugs or by other means, to carry out drug-related crimes.

Mr Flanagan said the reform is not about “making life easier for drug dealers”.

He added: “What this is about is giving people who use drugs the opportunity to change their lives with the care and support of our health services.

“I want to strongly reiterate that, as minister for justice, I will continue to focus relentlessly on gangland criminals who import drugs into the state, who peddle them on our streets and seek to lure people into addiction and dependence.”

Catherine Byrne, minister of state with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy, said the reforms give people caught with drugs a “second chance”.

“We want to stop criminalising more than 10,000 people arrested every year for the possession of drugs for personal use,” she said.

“Behind the statistics, (there are) serious and lifelong consequences for individuals in terms of employment, education or even travelling abroad, and all the difficulties that may arise.

“I have met many people in my work as a volunteer youth leader whose lives were destroyed because of their convictions of possession of drugs.

“Often they were very young and straight away their lives came to a sudden stop.

“This new health approach gives people a second chance, it gives them the opportunity to avoid a criminal record and to move on with our lives.

“It saddens me that many people in our society are too quick to judge people who are different.

“This is especially the case for people on the margins of society.

“As someone who comes from a community that has been devastated by the impact of drug use, I know only too well how the stigma of drug use can damage individuals, their lives, communities, parents, grandparents, and leave many families without their loved ones because suddenly they’ve passed away.”

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