The Irish government has appointed former Health Service Executive CEO Paul Reid to chair its newly established Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use was established in late February, following resolutions in Dáil and Seanad Éireann, to examine and make recommendations on the country’s drug policy and reduce the harms of illicit drugs on individuals and the wider community.
Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar confirmed on Tuesday, 28 February that the former CEO of Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) Paul Reid has been appointed as the independent chairperson.
The assembly will also consist of 99 members of the general public, who will be chosen through a random selection process.
Mr Reid left the HSE in October 2022, following a three-year stint in the role which saw him lead the Irish health service through the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, his appointment has been met with concern from drug reform advocates in Ireland, due to the negative stance the health system has taken on drugs to date.
There has been particular criticism around the ‘restrictive’ nature of Ireland’s Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP). Despite being introduced in 2019 under the former Minister for Health Simon Harris, it was not fully operational until 2021, with fewer than 100 people thought to be enrolled on the scheme so far.
Many have also condemned the fact that chronic pain is not included on the programme, which only offers access to limited products for people living with one of three qualifying conditions. These include intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, severe treatment-resistant epilepsy, and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (MS).
“The current Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP) is one of the most restrictive in Europe,” said Peter Reynolds, who is chair of the Cannabis Industry Council (CIC) Ireland working group and a long-time campaigner for drug reform.
“MCAP has completely excluded thousands of Irish people who suffer from chronic pain, the indication for which the medicine is most often prescribed.”
A missed opportunity?
Speaking to Independent.ie, Green Party TD Patrick Costello described the decision to appoint Mr Reid to the role as a ‘terrible decision’ and a ‘missed opportunity’.
“The whole point of the Citizens’ Assembly is to bring new, fresh thinking and explore new ideas, and anybody who has been at the top of the HSE has been way too close to this issue,” said Mr Costello.
“It’s a missed opportunity to bring fresh air to the debate, someone who could inspire the members of the assembly.”
According to the media outlet, a spokesperson for Mr Reid confirmed that he has never taken illegal drugs.
Other government officials have been open about their consumption of drugs in recent weeks, including Fine Gael Drugs Strategy Minister Hildegarde Naughton, who admitted to illegally smoking cannabis in Ireland while in her twenties.
Also, Fine Gael Minister of State Neale Richmond said he tried cannabis while in Holland, where it is legal to take the drug, but had a ‘horrible experience’.
Unlocking the stalemate on drug policy
As a representative of the cannabis industry in the UK and Ireland, the CIC has welcomed the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly in the hope it will ‘unlock the stalemate’ on drug policy.
Mr Reynolds believes there is a ‘strong possibility’ that the assembly will lead to more liberal drug laws.
“The Cannabis Industry Council very much hopes this development will unlock the stalemate on drugs policy in Ireland,” he commented.
“Ireland is also in a really bad place in respect to hemp and CBD. The authorities have been seizing products and prosecuting people, in defiance of EU law, while the courts have handed down seemingly contradictory judgments.
“The sector had previously been booming, creating new businesses and jobs. It does, though, seem a strong possibility that the Citizens’ Assembly will recommend some form of liberalisation, which could revive the sector and provide a boost to Ireland’s economy.”
Mr Reynolds has also made clear the intentions of the working group to ‘hold Mr Reid to account’ and is optimistic that his previous experience and knowledge of government could be advantageous to delivering reform.
“Ireland’s medical establishment has been very negative about medicinal cannabis, undermining MCAP, even though it is government policy,” Mr Reynolds added.
“Mr Reid will know his way around the system, so, hopefully, he will help to deliver the reform that is desperately needed.
“We will be holding Mr Reid to account to ensure an evidence-based approach, with harm reduction and economic growth at the core, is pursued.”
The role of the public
Over the coming week, 20,000 households around Ireland will receive letters from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar inviting someone from the household to apply to join the Citizens’ Assembly. From the applications received, the final 99 members will be chosen based on their age profile, gender and location.
The first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly is due to take place on 14 April, with its report expected to be submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas by the end of the year.
Commenting on his appointment, Mr Reid stated: “I am delighted to have been appointed by the Taoiseach as Chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use. The problems associated with drug use in Ireland affect us all, directly or indirectly.
“Previous Assemblies have shown that members of the general public have an important contribution to make to tackling complex societal problems, and I expect that the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use will be no different.
“A campaign to select members of the public to join the Citizens’ Assembly will begin this week. I look forward to working with my fellow members of the Citizens’ Assembly over the coming months.”
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