Citizens' assembly to improve Irish drug policy

15. April 2023
wallsdontlie / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In Ireland, a citizens' assembly on the country's drug policy began its work on 15 April 2023. The 99 participants will develop recommendations for government and parliament with the help of experts. The question is how to significantly reduce the harmful effects of illicit drugs on individuals, families, communities and the wider society.

Ireland has a growing drug problem. Governments have therefore sought to get a handle on the issue as far back as 1996 when the first report of the ministerial task force on measures to reduce the demand for drugs was drawn up by a committee of ministers of state.

Number of deaths from drugs increased

Local drug task forces monitored by a National Drug Strategy Team were created to provide a coordinated response to drug problems. Twenty years after the publication of the Rabbitte Report as it became known, the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign pointed out that by 2021, the number of deaths from drugs had increased by 225% nationwide.

The same year the Health Research Board (HRB) published findings of household surveys it conducted in 2019 and 2020. The research showed that while illegal drug use had plateaued since 2014-2015, there were notable changes in the types of drugs being used nationwide.

Cocaine use doubled sind 2002-2003

The use of cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, LSD and poppers had significantly risen and there was a small reduction in cannabis use. Cocaine use had doubled since 2002-2003 with more men aged 25-34 using it than ever before. More than one-third of respondents reported a 'very big' or ‘fairly big’ problem with people using or dealing drugs in their local area.

The Assembly shall therefore consider, inter alia:

  • the drivers, prevalence, attitudes and trends in relation to drugs use in Irish society
  • the harmful impacts of drugs use on individuals, families, communities and wider society
  • best practice in promoting and supporting rehabilitation and recovery from drug addiction
  • the lived experience of young people and adults affected by drugs use, as well as their families and communities
  • international, European Union, national and local perspectives on drugs use
  • the efficacy of current strategic, policy and operational responses to drugs use
  • international best practice and practical case studies in relation to reducing supply, demand and harm, and increasing resilience, health and well-being
  • the opportunities and challenges, in an Irish context, of reforming legislation, strategy, policy and operational responses to drugs use, taking into consideration the implications for the health, criminal justice and education systems

The chair of the Citizens' Assembly is Paul Reid. He was previously Chief Executive of the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) and of the Fingal County Council, a local infrastructure authority. Referring to the debate on the legalisation of drugs, he said at the beginning of the Citizens' Assembly that they would look at how other countries have dealt with the decriminalisation of drugs in recent years, including Portugal, Canada and parts of the USA.

Criticism of the procedure

A group of individuals and organizations in drugs policy, well-being, and support services have penned an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing "grave concerns" that the Citizens' Assembly on Drugs may not be meeting the "vital requirement" presented in its terms of reference to “operate in an open and transparent manner”.

Policy experts, TDs and campaigners have alleged that the formation of an advisory group for the Assembly was done “without the slightest effort” to be “open and transparent”. The open letter asks 11 questions to Prime Minister Leo Varadkar about how the Assembly made decisions on matters related to the formation of this group and information sessions about the Assembly.

Some of these questions, as presented in the letter, ask:

  • Why were the information sessions arranged at impossibly short notice, preventing most advocacy, lobby groups and other stakeholders from attending?
  • Who was invited to the information sessions and what were the selection criteria?
  • Why was the Advisory Support Group appointed in secret and what were the selection criteria?

"No fair results without a fair process"

Clinical Lead HSE Addictions, Dr Garrett McGovern, one of the signatories of the letter, told said: “It is pivotally important that the Citizens Assembly follows a fair, objective and transparent process. The debate on drugs is incredibly polarising with both sides of the divide eager to push its agenda, sometimes at any cost. If Ireland is to adopt a drug policy that best serves its citizens, reduces drug-related deaths and associated negative sequelae the Citizens’Assembly is a platform that can help achieve these aims. Without a fair process, we have no chance of achieving a fair result.“

Crainn, an organisation that aims to educate the public and policymakers on sensible drug policy solutions which promote safety and harm reduction, added: "We are concerned about the running of the assembly, including how the public and organisations will take part. For example, the assembly is due to start in a few short weeks and we have no information on how this process will work. Furthermore, there was a meeting for 'stakeholders' in Dublin on March 28. However, a number of notable organisations and public figures who have been working in drug policy for years did not find out about it, and received all information about it via Twitter after the fact."

Criticism refuted

Chairman Paul Reid refuted the criticism saying that the advisory group had a diverse membership and set of views. "I’m very clear and refute criticism of the advisory group because the advisory group has very diverse and very different views," Reid said. "People who have completely different views on any end of the continuum with the use of drugs. People that would advocate to decriminalize, people who would advocate that we shouldn’t be. People who have the opposite view. So we have the diverse views in the group, and they will provide support and advice throughout."

Reid announced that there would be a ‘Lived Experience Group’ established to work alongside the Citizens’ Assembly as well as the advisory group. The Lived Experience Group is being established to ensure that the perspective of individuals and families impacted by drug use are heard, with representatives from the group also forming part of the wider advisory group.

Citizens' Assembly a reflection of the population

The 99 assembly members were drawn from across the country using a stratified random selection process. Any adult resident in Ireland can become a member of a Citizens' Assembly. This includes people who do not hold Irish citizenship and those who are not on the electoral roll. Thus the participants represent a broad spectrum of Irish society.

20,000 households had received a postal invitation to the Citizens' Assembly. One member from each household was invited to apply to participate in the mini public. Based on the most recent census data, factors such as age, gender, place of residence and occupational-economic status were taken into account when selecting participants.

The Citizens' Assembly meets for a total of six weekend meetings. The last meeting will take place in October 2023. The final report of the participants with their recommendations on drug policy will be handed over to parliament by the end of 2023.

Citizens' assemblies since 2016

Since 2016, citizens' assemblies in Ireland have addressed abortion, biodiversity, challenges and opportunities of an aging population, fixed term parliaments, the manner in which referenda are held, climate change and gender equality. Previously, from 2013 to 2014, there was a constitutional convention made up of two-thirds randomly selected citizens to discuss same-sex marriage, blasphemy, the right to vote, a minimum age for presidential candidates, economic, social and cultural rights and the role of women in politics.

Recommendations of the citizens' assemblies on abortion, same-sex marriage and the deletion of the paragraph on blasphemy from the constitution found a majority in compulsory constitutional referendums. On the other hand, reducing the age threshold for candidacy for presidential elections from 35 to 21 years, as proposed by the Constitutional Convention, was rejected by the voters.

Read more: Citizens' Assembly on Drugs Use

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