Home > Launch of Government proposals for a health-led approach to possession of drugs for personal use. Speech by Minister Catherine Byrne.

[Department of Health] Launch of Government proposals for a health-led approach to possession of drugs for personal use. Speech by Minister Catherine Byrne. (02 Aug 2019)

As Minister for State for the National Drugs Strategy, I am delighted to present the Government proposals for a health-led approach to the possession of drugs for personal use.


This is a hugely important step forward in terms of how we look at drug use and addiction in this country.

I have always believed this is the direction we need to take to help and support people, young people in particular, to address their drug use, to make the journey to recovery, and to have the same chances in life as everyone else.


Our National Drugs Strategy; 'Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery' which was launched 2 years ago by myself, Minister Harris, and the Taoiseach, is founded on the core values of compassion, respect and inclusion. It sets out a bold new remit to treat substance abuse and drug addiction as a public health issue; to help individuals and families to rebuild their lives; and to reduce crime. As we set out to implement our Strategy, a key priority for me was to establish a Working Group to consider alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use.


I wish to acknowledge the members of the group who are here and to thank you for the huge amount of work you undertook in preparing such a comprehensive and well researched report which has brought us to today. On receiving the report in April, I studied it very closely and discussed it in detail with my colleagues; Minister Simon Harris and Minister Charlie Flanagan.


We were in agreement that we should take a health-led approach to drug use, with 2 main objectives:

  1. To give a person in possession of drugs for personal use the chance to avoid a criminal conviction;
  2. To support a person to reduce their use of drugs and, where necessary, to get help for drug addiction.


The health-led approach reflects a broad consensus from the expert working group. It also reflects the views of Irish society, based on a public consultation involving over 20,000 people, 90% of whom support the removal of criminal penalties for simple possession offences. My reason for wanting to progress a health-led approach are simple; I want to stop criminalising the more than 10,000 people arrested every year for possession of drugs for personal use. Behind these statistics are serious and life-long consequences for individuals in terms of employment and education, or for travelling to a different county.


I have met many people in my work as a public representative whose lives have been destroyed because of a conviction for possession of drugs, often when they were young. This new heath-led approach gives people a second chance. It gives them the opportunity to avoid a criminal record and to move on with their lives. This is a huge step forward for Irish society, especially for our young people and those who come from disadvantaged or poorer backgrounds. Views may differ but I think we have struck the right balance.


I also want to reduce the stigma associated with using drugs, which can isolate people from their friends, families and communities, and can leave them vulnerable to being exploited by others. It saddens me that many people in Irish society are too quick to judge and label 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 seen the devastating impact of drug use, I know only too well how the stigma of drug use can damage individuals and communities. It can further marginalise those who are face significant challenges arising from poverty, or homelessness, or childhood trauma or mental illness. Ending the stigma is an important step in helping people to deal with these issues.


While possession of drugs must remain a criminal offence for legal reasons, we must ensure that we no longer label people as criminals for consuming drugs. Another very important reason to develop this health-led approach is to offer hope to the people who use drugs. This is critical to treating drug use as a public health issue. We must reach out to people and make it easier for them to seek help.


The key to giving people hope is the SAOR programme. This programme is intended as a gateway for assessment, treatment and education, so as to deliver better health outcomes for people who use drugs. It’s a programme that is widely used within the health services and carries no stigma. The literal meaning of SAOR is ‘free’ which I think speaks to our approach to focusing on a person’s needs with compassion and respect, providing access to quality services and supports, regardless of where they live or what resources they have.


Ensuring there are adequate drug and alcohol treatment services will be a critical factor in the success of the health-led approach. Already, we have 373 drug treatment services located across the country provided by statutory, voluntary and community organisations. In addition, 356 GPs provide opioid substitution treatment services including methadone, which is a lifeline for many. We are continuing to invest in these services, with additional resources being provided in 2019 for addiction services for people with mental health issues, homeless people and people with complex needs through the drug and alcohol task forces. 


In adopting a health-led approach, we do not want to send out the message that drug use is acceptable or normal. It’s not and never will be. There are many reasons for this: the impact on a person’s health, especially mental health; the impact on families and communities; and the impact on criminality and the global drugs trade. That’s why the Department of Health will next year launch an awareness campaign about the dangers of drug use. It will target high risk groups, such as festival goers and students, so that they get the message that drug use can have many health consequences.


I want to acknowledge the many groups and individuals who have supported a policy shift from a criminal justice to a health-led approach to the possession of drugs. This has not been an overnight success or a one-person or one-party achievement. I want to thank the national oversight committee (NOC), which gives leadership and direction for the national drugs strategy and ensures that evidence and good practice inform the development of policy. I look forward to hearing your feedback at our next meeting. I wish to pay tribute to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Minister of State David Stanton, for paving the way for a health-led approach. I also acknowledge the advocacy of organisations in the community and voluntary sector, and politicians including Senator Lynn Ruane and Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. Given the long road we have travelled, I am honoured to be the Minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy who has brought a health-led approach from concept to reality.


We now move to the implementation phase and the rollout of the new approach in quarter 3 next year. I hope we can count on your continued support and encouragement to get this policy up and running and to ensure it is delivered in an effective and timely manner. A final word of thanks to my colleagues Minister Harris and Minister Flanagan, and to the Taoiseach for his support for our Strategy and this new direction in drugs policy, which I believe is going to change many lives for the better.

Thank you.

Item Type
Publication Type
Drug Type
All substances, Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention, Rehabilitation/Recovery, Policy
2 August 2019

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