Home > Speech by Minister Harris launch of health diversion approach for drug use.

[Department of Health] Speech by Minister Harris launch of health diversion approach for drug use. (02 Aug 2019)

External website: https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/9aaeca-ministe...

Ministers, (Assistant) Commissioner, colleagues, I want to welcome you all to the Department of Health on what is a very significant day for Irish society.

Before I get started, I want to pay tribute today to my colleague Minister Catherine Byrne. Catherine, I do not believe today would have been possible without you. Your dedication, determination and drive has made today a reality and I want sincerely thank you. Because today is a really important day. For far too long, we have looked at drug use as a criminal justice issue. Today, we are presenting a new Government policy – a health-led response - to the possession of drugs for personal use. This shift in our response to drug misuse represents a new era in how we treat those that are affected by drug use, one that affords them their human rights and dignity. 

Why we Need a Policy Shift

Colleagues, it is clear the war on drugs has not worked and we must develop new ways to tackle issues of addiction. I am privileged to be announcing Ireland’s biggest step into this domain today.

Now, when we come across somebody with a drug addiction, we will be giving them a helping hand instead of a handcuff. They will have a supportive, person-centred conversation with a health professional who can offer assistance and treatment. 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 the criminal justice system was regressive and belongs 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 and quite frankly embarrassing. We badly need this compassionate, health-led response to addiction. That is why we set up the Working Group late last year to look at exactly that. The Working Group did a very thorough job and I want to thank them sincerely for their work. 

Upon receiving their report and engaging in further consultation, Minister Flanagan, Minister Byrne and I made the decision to implement a number of the recommendations; thereby creating a health-diversion approach to dealing with those found with drugs for personal use. 

Health-diversion approach – how will it work

This new health diversion approach is centred around three principles:

  • People should not receive a criminal conviction for possessing drugs for their personal use;
  • We must identify problematic drug use and be able to refer people to the appropriate treatment;
  • We must support people to avoid, reduce and recover from drug-related harm;

I am confident that the measures we are announcing today address these principles. People found in possession of drugs for personal use on the first occasion, would be diverted to the Health Service Executive for a health screening and brief intervention with a health professional. These trained providers will be working together to ensure people do not fall through the cracks. On the second occasion a person is found in possession of drugs for personal use, An Garda Siochana will have the discretion to issue an adult caution.

Not DecriminalisingI also want to touch briefly on decriminalisation as I know my colleague, the Minister for Justice, will want to deal with this matter. Decriminalisation in Ireland means shifting an offence from criminal, to being non-criminal. Decriminalisation was considered very seriously during the deliberations of the working group.The group concluded that decriminalising drug use would reduce our ability to help those who needed it. It could lead to de facto legalisation of drugs. It is essential we do not do anything to interfere with An Garda Siochána’s ability to search those who they suspect to be carrying drugs. An Gardai Siochána have, over the years, played an important role in tackling the supply of drugs and supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives, we do not want to undermine their work in any way.

Not Legalising Drugs   Facing up to drugs, as we are doing here today, does not mean we are legalising them, or that we have any future plans to do so. Ministers Flanagan, Byrne and I have made it quite clear that there are no plans to legalise cannabis or any other illicit drugs in our country.


The Health Diversion Approach, as outlined here today will ensure that people have access to high quality services and support regardless of where they live, who they are or when they need it. We want to truly break the cycle of addiction, and to do that, we must take a health-led approach. Maintaining the status-quo will not break addiction. That approach would be a failure in our duties in terms of a modern health service and a compassionate, tolerant society that wants to look after and care for people in difficult times. I am proud to stand with you, those who assist those in addiction, and present these proposals and I want to work with you to ensure we continue to care for those who need our help the most. 

These people do not belong in a courtroom, a prison or a Garda cell; instead they need a counsellor, a nurse, a doctor and a path to recovery.

To suggest that the work the department is doing is somehow trying to achieve legalisation further down the line is insulting to all of us who are trying to change to a health-led response for people who use drugs.

Cannabis use by adolescents, in particular, is worrying as it poses risks of dependence and developing psychotic illness. One of the most recent prevalence surveys suggested that usage amongst our adolescents for the past year is on par with Europe’s at 14%. It is clear we cannot be complacent about the risk to health posed by cannabis use. We have established a compassionate access programme for cannabis for medicinal reasons. A great deal of work has been completed with HSE colleagues and clinicians to prepare for this. The programme has been designed and clinical guidelines have been published, which are available on my Department’s website.

There has also been a lot of discussion about cannabis and speculation regarding our plans in this area, due to the recent legislation surrounding medicinal cannabis and the work of the Working Group. It is important for me to set the record straight on this. I want to acknowledge the very real dangers we are facing as a society in terms of cannabis use.

I accept that some people will feel these measures don’t go far enough, while others will feel that we have gone too far. However, it is precisely because we are in this space between the two extremes of opinions that I am assured we have gone with the right and most measured response in introducing, what is undeniably the biggest shift in our approach to drug use that Ireland has ever seen. This approach will work, and it will help people and will ultimately save lives.

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