Prosecutions for the possession of cannabis for personal use in Ireland have almost halved over the past year, according to figures from An Garda Síochána.
The number of people either charged or summonsed for simple possession of cannabis up to the middle of December 2021 has dramatically fallen away compared to the previous year, largely due to offenders receiving a caution instead of a court appearance.
The figures indicate Ireland is following a global shift toward decriminalisation of the drug.
Malta made history in the middle of December by becoming the first country in Europe to allow limited cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use, following a vote in parliament.
It is likely to be followed by a wave of similar plans across Europe, with Luxembourg expected to give the green light to a comparable measure.
Several other countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, are also on the cusp of taking a more lenient approach to the possession of cannabis.
Garda figures show there were 11,127 prosecutions in Ireland for the possession of cannabis in 2020, but the figure had dropped to 5,957 for 2021 to the week ending December 14.
Gardaí attribute the primary reason for the reduction in prosecutions to the addition of possession of cannabis and cannabis resin for personal use to the Adult Cautioning Scheme at the end of 2020.
The caution is administered in a garda station when there is evidence of the commission of a scheduled criminal offence and the prosecution of the offence is not required in the public interest.
The new figures also reveal the number of prosecutions for the cultivation of cannabis plants or opium poppy in Ireland shot up from 197 in 2019 to 310 in 2020. Prosecutions for the sale and supply of cannabis in Ireland fell from 1,968 cases in 2020 to 1,283 cases by the middle of December 2021.
Prosecutions for importing or exporting cannabis in Ireland reached a high of 16 in 2020, while there were fewer than 10 incidents relating to 2021.
Uruguay was the world’s first country to legalise the production and sale of marijuana, while it is legal for recreational use in many US states.
Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Europe and globally, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
In its most recent report this year, the European Union agency said regulatory responses are also becoming more variable and complicated as several countries permit cannabis products to be available under certain circumstances for therapeutic purposes, and some are proposing the tolerance of some forms of recreational consumption.
“While most health and social concerns still remain focused on illicit cannabis consumption, this is becoming a more complex area from both a definitional and response perspective,” it stated.
The report said cannabis use can result in, or exacerbate, a range of physical and mental health, social and economic problems. It said cannabis use is highest among young adults and the age of first use of cannabis is lower than for most other illicit drugs.
It is estimated about 16 million young Europeans aged from 15 to 34, or around 15pc of this age group, used cannabis in the last year, with this figure increasing to around 20pc in the 15 to 24 age group.
It pointed out cannabis use is often experimental, commonly lasting for only a short period of time in early adulthood.
But the report added a minority of people do develop more persistent and problematic patterns of use, with such problems being associated with regular, long-term and high-dose cannabis use.
These problems can include poor physical health such as chronic respiratory symptoms, and mental health issues such as cannabis dependence and psychotic symptoms.
Social and economic problems were also mentioned arising from poor school performance, failure to complete education, impaired work performance or involvement in the criminal justice system.