Drug cautions ‘clearly not working’ as cannabis possession charges top 17,000

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said she was concerned after drug possession charges spiked in three of four Garda regions.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee wearing a black coat and pink shirt
Helen McEntee visit to National Rehabilitation Hospital Justice Minister Helen McEntee speaking to the media after a visit to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin. Picture date: Thursday November 30, 2023. (Brian Lawless/PA)

A system that aims to reduce the number of people brought to court for possession of controlled drugs such as cannabis is “clearly not doing what it was meant to do”.

Data released by the Department of Justice shows the number of court actions dwarfed the number of adult cautions for cannabis possession in the past three years.

The figures also show there has been a spike in the number of charges for possession of controlled drugs in the past five years across three of the four Garda regions in Ireland.

There has also been an increase in the number of juveniles being charged with possession of a controlled substance, up from 53 in 2017 to 120 in 2023.

Despite an adult caution scheme which aims to limit the number of people taken to court for possession of a controlled drug, there were more than 17,000 people charged or summonsed for possession of cannabis or cannabis resin in the past three years.

Cannabis and cannabis resin were added to the Adult Cautioning Scheme from December 14 2020, which sees people cautioned instead of appearing before a judge.

According to figures released by the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, from December 14 2020 to February 16 2024, 5,139 people were issued with an adult caution for simple possession of cannabis or cannabis resin.

In the same period, 17,125 people were issued with a charge/summons for simple possession of cannabis or cannabis resin.

The figures are based on data from the Garda Pulse system taken on February 16 2024 and are liable to change, the Department said.

Mr Kenny said that the scheme is meant to prevent people being directed towards the criminal justice system, and so is “clearly not doing what it was meant to do”.

He said how the scheme operates is discretionary and reliant on individual gardai and Garda stations.

“There are questions to be asked of that particular scheme, it doesn’t go far enough by any means. The data clearly indicates people are not being redirected away from the criminal justice system.”

Figures released to Mr Kenny also show there has been a 54% increase in the number of drugs possession charges in the Dublin region in a five-year period.

In the eastern region, there was a 74% increase from 967 to 1,685 in possession charges between 2019 and 2023, and in the southern region the number of charges increased from 872 to 1,123.

There was no change to the number of possession charges in the north western region.

Mr Kenny said the increases across all regions show “this is not going in the right direction” and said that if a health-led approach to drugs is being proposed “it’s not doing its job”.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she was “concerned to see this increase” and pointed out that the figures relate to the number of charges, rather than individuals.

“We must also recognise that it also reflects the increased Garda numbers on frontline policing duties and the concentrated work of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.”

Ms McEntee said that “tackling drug dealing and associated criminal activity” was a priority for government.

She said the number of gardai assigned to specialist drugs units had increased by almost 47% since the end of 2018.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use has recommended that while possession of illicit drugs should remain illegal, those found in possession should be given “first and foremost, extensive opportunities to engage voluntarily with health-led services”.

Mr Kenny and other politicians, including former Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Aodhan O’Riordain, are in favour of the decriminalisation of a person found in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.

A special committee is to be established in April to examine the Citizen’s Assembly conclusions and produce a report making a series of recommendations for the Government on what actions it can take.