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Cork court-referral progamme sees young cocaine users avoid criminal conviction

A court-referral programme in Cork has seen 189 young cocaine users avoiding a criminal conviction and diverted into a health intervention, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs has heard.

The programme is driven by local district court judge, Olann Kelleher, and is operated in conjunction with HSE South and Coolmine.

Joe Kirby of HSE Cork/Kerry said that of the 189 young people referred, more than nine out of 10 attended, which he described as really high, and that 11% of these were referred on for specialist health intervention.

Focus on prevention

The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs is holding its fifth and penultimate meeting this weekend, focusing on prevention.

Much of its work has been on examining legal systems and options in relation to possession of drugs for personal use.

It will submit its report, along with recommendations, to the Oireachtas by the end of the year.

Judge Kelleher said that when he started his work there were no cocaine cases, but that over the last five years there has been “a dramatic increase”.

He said that in a lot of assault cases, particularly among students, cocaine was a major factor.

He said while cannabis requires three convictions before a person can be jailed, someone can be imprisoned on their first case of cocaine possession and that he needed to adopt a different approach.

He said a conviction was “only the tip of the iceberg” and that a young person’s CV is affected and that it will also come up in garda vetting.

Judge Kelleher said young people were telling him they were spending anywhere between €100-400 on cocaine, so he set his fine at €750.

“What that means then, if it's the first offense, I would say, ‘well, I'll give you an opportunity to avoid a conviction’ and everyone takes it, everyone.” 

Judge Kelleher said he deals with all the possession cases together and only has to say what he says once, meaning it speeds up the system.

Mr Kirby said they approached the judge, who he described as “pioneering”, to see if they would use the fine money to pay for a dedicated health official, in Coolmine, to work with the person, which he agreed to do, assisted by the local probation service.

He said they’ve had 189 people through the process, which he said was very significant and would be a lot higher if it were not for covid.

He said 81% of the people referred were employed and 7% were students, saying this was “a cohort who wouldn't normally come to our services or mainstream services”.

 Joe Kirby of HSE Cork/Kerry, said the 'pioneering' programme was well attendend. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
 Joe Kirby of HSE Cork/Kerry, said the 'pioneering' programme was well attendend. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Wide benefits

Declan O’Riordan of Coolmine said the system can be very beneficial to those using drugs recreationally as well as those with more substantial drug issues, with whom they explore options they have.

“We could be the first person that someone opens up to with regard to an issue such as their mental health. They could be suffering from depression, and never had the opportunity or inclination to speak to a professional about it."

Mr O’Riordan said cocaine use has “increased dramatically” to a point where it's very normal for people to go into the toilet to use cocaine, both in the city and the countryside.

Judge Kelleher said that if the assembly makes recommendations based on the Cork model that judges around the country might take it on board.

Nicola Corrigan of the HSE National Social Inclusion Office said the implementation of the Health Diversion Programme, in which those caught by gardaí in possession of drugs for personal use will be diverted once, possibly twice, to a health intervention system, has been “frustratingly slow”.

She said of the nine dedicated health workers across the country, two are so far in place and seven are in the process of being recruited.

She said Cork will receive their own worker, which would be separate to the one for the court-referral system there.

Ian Marder of the School of Law and Criminology, Maynooth University, said he was “absolutely” of the view that members should recommend, at a minimum, the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.

He said criminalisation was harmful and was “designed” to stigmatise users and did not deter problem drug use.

He argued for the use of restorative justice for drug-related offences.