Members of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs will outline their recommendations for the country’s drug policy over the coming weeks, with calls for reform expected to be a key feature.
Following six months of deliberations, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use has concluded its consideration of the issues, having heard from a wide range of experts across all aspects of drug use.
The final panel sessions took place on Sunday 1 October, with the 99 members expected to reconvene later this month to agree on their recommendations. A final report will then be submitted to the Oireachtas by the end of the year.
Members have now heard a collective 180 hours of discussion from experts in areas such as health, policy, academia and frontline services, as well as hearing from individuals, families and communities who have been impacted by drug use.
Those who have been following the developments closely have been predicting for some time that a form of decriminalisation is likely to feature as a key recommendation.
Chair of the Assembly, Paul Reid, has also forecast this, telling the Irish Times that there is a ‘strong mood for change’ and a feeling among members that criminalisation is ‘harsh’.
But what form decriminalisation will take remains to be seen
While the recognition of the need to liberalise drug policy in Ireland will be widely welcomed, exactly what form that will take remains to be seen.
Drug policy and education group, Crainn, spoke at the Assembly in September, specifically around the arguments for the decriminalisation of cannabis possession, alongside home-cultivation and the implementation of a cannabis social club model.
A representative of Crainn, Ryan McHale, told Cannabis Health that while it hopes these are included within the scope of the Assembly’s recommendations, there is concern that members may opt for a diversion scheme which would see all drug users forced to undergo mandatory treatment as opposed to criminalisation.
“Government representatives advocated for a ‘diversion’ approach which would see users have to take a mandatory health intervention,” explained McHale.
“This would be a move we would support for more ‘problematic’ drugs with high rates of harm such as heroin or crack, but to include cannabis in this would be both unworkable and inhumane. Eamon Keenan who represents Ireland’s health service confirmed at one of the meetings that this would include non-problematic drug users if implemented, a move that we would absolutely disagree with.”
‘Disappointing’ lack of discussions on legalisation
Drug reform advocates have also voiced their disappointment that members weren’t given the opportunity to hear insights on the effects of full legalisation and regulated market models.
Mr Reid told the Irish Times that he ‘didn’t get a sense that members would legalise some or all drugs’ – although there are ‘extreme views’ on both sides.
“While we are disappointed that legalisation is unlikely to feature in the final recommendations, as reported by the Irish Times, it is not at all surprising,” continued McHale.
“Members of the Assembly were given virtually no material on legalisation to work with, most notably there were absolutely no representatives from other countries that have legalised invited to share their expertise.”
The omission of medical cannabis
There was also no discussion around medical cannabis and the major challenges that remain regarding patient access.
Ireland has been criticised for its ‘restrictive’ medical cannabis policy. The Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP) was launched in 2019 but access is limited to those with one of three qualifying conditions.
To date less than 100 patients are thought to have been able to access cannabis medicines through the scheme, with many moving abroad to access cannabis legally.
“It is disappointing to see that medical cannabis was not explored in any depth whatsoever either, despite it being a major issue for many in Ireland,” McHale added.
“There should have been a far greater focus on issues affecting cannabis consumers of all different stripes, including verbal testimony of a number of patients who have either fled Ireland, or who consume on the illicit market.”
What happens now? The significance of Citizens’ Assemblies in Ireland
The recommendations are only that – recommendations – it will then fall to policymakers to take them forward and decide whether they should be implemented into the country’s drug laws.
However, Citizens’ Assemblies have previously held significant weight in enabling constitutional change on a number of key issues.
The format arose from the 2012-2014 Convention on the Constitution that considered a wide-range of constitutional matters identified for discussion. Arising from the Convention, the Government held the marriage equality referendum in May 2015 that introduced same-sex marriage.
The model was then applied to a series of Citizens’ Assemblies across a wide-range of issues, including abortion, which led to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018.
Speaking at the close of the meeting on Sunday 1 October, Mr Reid, said the Citizens Assembly represents the most comprehensive assessment and consideration of drugs policy in Ireland, and said members are well-equipped to agree final recommendations in the weeks ahead.
“Over the next three weeks members will receive draft recommendations that reflect the nature of the conversations to date. They will have the opportunity to discuss these draft recommendations further to make sure they accurately reflect the nature of those discussions. Members will then proceed to vote on these at the next meeting at the end of this month,” he commented.
“This has been a thorough process. All sides of the debate, many different viewpoints, and local, national and international perspectives have been shared. Members now have the chance to have their say, and I want to thank them for all their work and dedication to achieve a conclusion that will effect change.”
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