First and second time drug offenders will avoid criminal conviction for possession as part of a new policy announced by Government today.

However, the Government has rejected the recommendation of a special working group to remove imprisonment as a penalty for all drug possession cases.

The new 'health led approach' which is due to come into operation at the end of next year would mean those caught in possession would be referred to the HSE for a health screening for a first offence.

Gardaí will have discretion to use an adult caution for a second offence.

It was announced by Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne.

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Minister Harris said: "This approach will not decriminalise drug use; it is a mechanism to defer people to health and social services for help and support. Ministers Flanagan, Byrne and I are very clear that there are no plans to legalise any type of drugs, including cannabis."

Speaking at the launch, Ms Byrne said some people's lives had been destroyed by a drug conviction in their youth and said everyone deserves a second chance.

"The message is not that drug use is normal or acceptable. It is not and never will be."

The HSE estimates that it will carry out 10,000 health screenings per year as a result of the new measure and that 1,200 people will be referred on for treatment. It will cost an additional €750,000 a year in staff costs.

The policy announcement follows a long-awaited report from The Working Group to Consider Alternative Approaches to the Possession of Drugs for Personal Use which was set up to examine decriminalisation measures in other countries including Portugal.

It was meant to report at the end of last year but there was disagreement among its membership which included representatives of the departments of Health and Justice, An Garda Síochána, the Probation Service, the DPP, HSE, Health Research Board, as well as two people with experience of drugs.

The working group examined the experience in nine other countries including Portugal but concluded "the research in this area is complex, incomplete and not capable of providing definitive answers about what the outcome of any given approach will be in the Irish context".

In the end the working group recommended that possession for personal use should never be punishable with prisons and offered a system of multiple adult cautions along with diversions to treatment as alternative options.

However, the chairman of the working group, former judge and criminal defence solicitor Garrett Sheehan, issued a minority report saying any moves towards decriminalisation would be "throwing in the towel" on the potential of young people.

He advocated instead an education campaign to make drug taking just as socially unacceptable as smoking in public places.

Gardaí also issued an addendum saying that a system of adult cautions would make it harder to police the drug market and said the working group had failed to consider the effect of this system on organised crime.  

The working group was set up as part of the national drugs strategy 'Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery'.

The UN, EU and the Oireachtas Committee on Justice have all called for a public health approach to the drug problem.

The working group reported that more than 70% of the 16,800 drug offences reported in 2017 were for possession but that on average only 980 people a year received a criminal conviction with 75 people going to jail in 2017.

It recommended removing prison as an option in all cases of drug possession and that all such criminal records would be "spent" after three years.

The Government decided to retain the option of imprisonment for some drug possession offences.

Another legal change being considered is to make it an offence to "groom" a child into committing a drug-related crime.