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Summary

Ireland has announced that it intends to take measures to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs as part of its drug strategy.  The aim is to remove users, who are typically addicts in need of medical attention, from the criminal justice system.  The distribution and sale of illegal drugs will remain an offense.  Medically supervised injecting centers are soon to be tested in Dublin, with the aim of taking users off the streets and reducing the incidence of infections among users.

I.  Introduction

In November 2015, Irish Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin announced that Ireland, as part of its strategy to deal with the country’s drug problem, would take measures toward decriminalizing possession, for personal use, of small quantities of such illegal drugs as heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.[1]  

Alongside decriminalizing small quantities of drugs for personal use, specially designated, medically supervised facilities would be created for users to inject drugs.  The Minister emphasized that the move to decriminalize the use of drugs is a technique to help addicts, in contrast with existing legislation that focuses on shaming them.  The Minister stated that he was “firmly of the view that there needs to be a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse if we are to break this cycle and make a serious attempt to tackle drug and alcohol addiction.”[2]

The measures would decriminalize, not legalize, drugs, and the crimes of distributing and selling illegal drugs would continue in force.  The shift in focus for individual drug users would be to treat drug addiction primarily as a health issue and remove it from the criminal justice area, which would consequently allow the focus of police resources and court proceedings previously dedicated to users to be focused on drug dealers and traffickers.[3]

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II.  Legislative Process to Decriminalize Drugs 

No legislative proposal or regulations have yet been put forward to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of restricted drugs.  One alternative would be a bill to amend the provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 that criminalize the possession of controlled substances.  Alternatively, regulations could be issued under sections 4 or 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Act to permit individuals to possess small quantities of illegal drugs.[4]  Any bill or regulations put forward would have to go through the regular legislative procedure.[5]

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III.  Policy Considerations

Ireland has studied the system in Portugal, which is understood to have had considerable success since it decriminalized low-level possession of all drugs in 2001.[6]  Rising and continual use of illegal narcotics, with little success of addiction treatment under the current system, has led the Irish government to consider other ways to tackle the abuse of illegal drugs.  The aim in decriminalizing small quantities of drugs is to remove the stigma from drug users, facilitate the medical treatment and care of these individuals, and reduce the risks posed to them and members of the public when drugs are used on the streets.[7]

In October 2015, Ireland’s Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality considered the decriminalization of drugs in small quantities and concluded that drug possession could be handled with civil penalties rather than through the criminal justice system, with the Gardaí (Irish national police service) and health providers having discretion whether to implement these penalties.  The Committee also recommended that individuals found in possession of small quantities of drugs be required to attend counseling and treatment sessions to help them stop using drugs, and concluded that further research was needed to ensure that the measures are appropriate to Ireland.[8]

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IV.  Injecting Centers

As part of a “suite of harm reduction measures,” in November 2015 the government announced its intention to create injecting centers where users can take drugs.[9]  These facilities would first be established in Dublin,[10] with the aim of opening more in Cork, Galaway, and Limerick.  The facilities would be “clinically controlled environments” and users would be medically supervised to help minimize the risks of infection and other diseases.[11]  The aim of these centers is to reduce drug use on the streets and its related risks.  The government cited research indicating the rooms are “effective in engaging difficult-to-reach populations of drug users.  This is especially the case for marginalised groups, such as the homeless, and those who use drugs on the streets or in other risky and unhygienic conditions.”[12] 

Proponents for these measures believe that these facilities will not only minimize the risks of injecting drugs on the street, but also provide a pathway for treatment, including medical and social care and counseling services.[13]  The government hopes that the centers will also allow the government to identify new drug use patterns; the centers “thus could have a role to play in the early identification of new and emerging trends among the high-risk populations using their services.”[14]

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Prepared by Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
July 2016


[1] Aodhán Ó Ríordáin,Minister of State for Drugs Strategy and Member of Irish Parliament, Address to the London School of Economics IDEAS Forum (Nov. 2, 2015), available on Ireland’s Department of Health website at http://health.gov.ie/blog/speeches/address-by-minister-aodhan-o-riordain-t-d-to-the-london-school-of-economics-ideas-forum, archived at https://perma.cc/RMT6-RRMJ; Rose Troup Buchanan, Ireland to “Decriminalise” Small Amounts of Drugs, Including Heroin, Cocaine and Cannabis, for Personal Use, Independent (London) (Nov. 3, 2015), www.independent.co.uk/news/world/ europe/ireland-to-decriminalise-small-amounts-of-drugs-including-heroin-cocaine-and-cannabis-for-personal-a6719136.html, archived at http://perma.cc/J5B6-8HR6.

[2] Buchanan, supra note 1.

[3] Ó Ríordáin, supra note 1.

[5] A Brief Guide to the Legislative Process, House of the Oireachtas, http://www.oireachtas.ie/viewdoc.asp?fn=/ documents/bills28/guide.htm (last visited June 28, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/26XC-X9ZD.

[6] Órla Ryan, Where Do Ireland’s Political Parties Stand on Decriminalising Cannabis?, The Journal (Ireland) (Feb. 13, 2016), http://www.thejournal.ie/decriminalisation-of-cannabis-ireland-2595145-Feb2016, archived at https://perma.cc/ML6Q-KUHX.

[7] Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality Deb., Submissions on Drugs Review: Discussion, Houses of the Oireachtas – Committee Debates (Oct. 14, 2015), http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/Debates%20Authoring/ DebatesWebPack.nsf/committeetakes/JUJ2015101400002?opendocument#B00100, archived at https://perma.cc/ GH23-66VW.     

[8] Id.

[9] Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State for Drugs Strategy and Member of Irish Parliament, Address to the CityWide 20th Anniversary Conference: The Way Forward for Irish Drugs Policy – Key Issues for the Next National Drugs Strategy (Nov. 12, 2015), available athttp://health.gov.ie/blog/s               peeches/address-by-minister-aodhan-o-riordain-t-d-to-the-citywide-20th-anniversary-conference, archived at https://perma.cc/6NJA-B4GV

[10] Paul Hosford, Dublin Will Be Getting Its First Drug Injection Centre Within 18 Months, The Journal (Ireland) (Dec. 15, 2015), http://www.thejournal.ie/drugs-heroin-injection-centres-2502999-Dec2015, archived at https://perma.cc/YRZ7-RQ2B.   

[11] Ó Ríordáin, supra note 1.

[12] Id.   

[13] Id.   

[14] Id.