Citizens' assembly wants to improve Irish drug policy

22. October 2023
Citizens' Assembly Ireland

The Irish Citizens' Assembly on Drugs Use recommended decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use on 22 October 2023.

The assembly had voted on 36 recommendations to the government aimed at creating a new Irish model of legislation, policy and support services to reduce the harm caused by illicit drug use. The recommendations will now be compiled into a final report summarising the work of the Citizens' Assembly, to be presented to Parliament by the end of 2023.

Decriminalisation for people found in possession of drugs

The Citizens’ Assembly has recommended that the State pivots from the status quo to a comprehensive health-led response to drugs, including decriminalisation for people found in possession of drugs for personal use. The details of how decriminalisation can be legislated for is a question that the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) should determine following detailed legal scrutiny.

Other key recommendations include greater responsibility and accountability for drug policy at the national level through the establishment of a special cabinet committee on drugs to be chaired by the prime minister, increased funding for drug addiction treatment services and a greater focus on drug use education and prevention measures.

"This is not decriminalisation"

For critics, then recommendation on significant changes to laws governing penalties for possession of drugs for personal use does not go far enough.“This is NOT decriminalisation. This IS coercion and suggests if you don't voluntarily engage with health services you could still face criminal sanctions. In other words if you don't have a problem & are caught in possession & won't say you have a problem you could be charged”, Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell, a PhD on the history of prohibition in Ireland, posted on X (former Twitter).

There was particular disquiet about the voting process, which saw the Ballot 2 motion to legalise all forms of cannabis in Ireland defeated by the narrowest of 38-39 margins. Some assembly members were claiming it wasn't clear what they were voting for and others complaining that they'd been presented with either incomplete or biased information.

"This is not deliberative democracy"

Citizens' Assembly member Kerry Anne Lawless, said: "I was attempting to point out the hypocrisy of having a very detailed discussion of some drugs while ignoring huge variability potency of cannabis. I wanted to change the process."

Claiming that over 15 of her fellow members were "confused about the options", Kerry Anne Lawless had earlier tweeted: "I approached the Chair and asked for Ballot 2 to be re-run, as did others. There was no interest in even putting it to Assembly members for discussion. I don't think it will change anything, but I'll look into lodging a formal complaint about the process." Summing up her feelings, she said: "Irrespective of the result, this is not deliberative democracy. The process was completely flawed."

"Most comprehensive discussion on drugs ever"

Assembly chair Paul Reid said members have "made an important contribution to Irish life through their active participation in the Assembly process. This has been the most comprehensive, wide-ranging, and representative discussion on all aspects of drugs use and drugs policy that has ever taken place in Ireland," he said.  "The Assembly has produced an Irish model of drugs laws designed in the context of the issues and challenges we face," Reid continued.

"We heard of the devastating impact that drugs use on individuals, their families, and communities, and we have heard the voices and stories of those who work at the forefront of drugs treatment, drugs services, and drugs prevention. We have heard arguments for a new and radical approach, and we heard calls for the maintenance of the status quo. Ultimately, it will be up to the Oireachtas to implement what the Assembly has called for. But if they do, this will not only change the national policy and approach, it will also change people’s lives. For the better", Reid said.

Mind change through Citizens' Assembly

Participation in the citizens' assembly has led to intensive reflection on the issue of drugs among its members. Adrian from Co Longford, said that though he did not have strong personal views on drug policy at the start of the process, his mind has been changed by what he has learned since. "The people who became caught up in the justice system because of taking drugs in their younger days had the biggest impact on me," he explained. Adrian came to the view that a health-led response to drug use was the way forward. 

Elaine, another member of the assembly, said that in the beginning, she didn’t know how she would contribute:  "I didn’t know a lot about drugs, so at the start I wondered, how am I going to be of help to the decision-making here? It has been a huge education. I’d never heard of a Citizens Assembly, but after each of our sessions I had more of an opinion. I’d find myself thinking about it on the drive home." Elaine said she wanted to see a health-led approach to addiction services. 

"We’ve listened to people affected by all this. Some people did one thing wrong, and their whole life fell apart. They need support to get past their addiction, but still have a house to come back to, still be able to get a job. People lost all that, that was heart-wrenching for me, because I had never heard of anything like it before," she explained. 

Committee on Justice to propose draft legislation

In a statement on 23 October 2023, a group of MPs and senators, including politicians from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party, Labour, and People Before Profit, said that the decision by the Citizens’ Assembly “reinforces the case for radical change in Irish drug policy”.

“We urge the Oireachtas to assign the report, when published, to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice to allow them carry out detailed deliberation and to propose draft legislation,” the statement reads.

99 assembly members

The Citizens' Assembly on the country's drug policy had begun its work on 15 April 2023. The 99 participants developed recommendations for government and parliament with the help of experts. The question was how to significantly reduce the harmful effects of illicit drugs on individuals, families, communities and the wider society. The Citizens' Assembly met for a total of six weekend meetings.

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 therefore considered, 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

Citizens' Assembly Chair Paul Reid 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.

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 could become a member of the Citizens' Assembly. This included people who did not hold Irish citizenship and those who were not on the electoral roll. Thus the participants represented 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.

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

Image licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0