Ireland: Citizens’ assembly on drugs to recommend change in laws

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After six months of deliberations, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use has completed its review of the issues, having heard from a wide range of experts on all aspects of drug use.

The panel’s final sessions took place on Sunday, October 1, and the 99 members are expected to meet again later this month to agree on their recommendations. A final report will then be submitted to the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, by the end of the year.

Members have now heard 180 hours of collective discussion from experts in fields including health, politics, academia and frontline services, as well as from individuals, families and communities who have been affected by drug use.

Assembly Speaker Paul Reid told the Irish Times that there is a “strong desire for change” and a feeling among members that criminalization is “harsh”.

The Citizens’ Assembly, established in Ireland in 2016, examines various political issues every 18 months. A report is then produced on each subject, to which the Irish government is required to respond.

The form decriminalization will take remains to be seen

The exact form that this “desire for change” will take remains to be determined.

The Crainn Group, which specializes in drug policy and education, spoke to the Citizens’ Assembly in September, specifically on the arguments for decriminalizing cannabis possession, home cultivation and the implementation of a Cannabis Social Club model.

A representative for Crainn, Ryan McHale, told Cannabis Health that he hoped these measures would be included within the scope of the Assembly’s recommendations, but was concerned that members would opt for a diversion system that would force all drug users into compulsory treatment instead of being incriminated.

“We would support this approach for more ‘problematic’ and more harmful drugs, such as heroin or crack, but it would be impossible and inhumane to include cannabis in this approach.”

Eamon Keenan, who represents the Irish health service, confirmed at one of the meetings that the measure would include non-problem drug users if implemented, “which we totally disagree with”.

Lack of discussions on legalization

Drug reform advocates have expressed disappointment in the lack of commentary on the effects of full legalization and regulated market models. Mr Reid told the Irish Times he “did not get the impression that members were going to legalize some or all drugs” – although there were “extreme views” on both sides.

“While we are disappointed that legalization is not included in the final recommendations, as reported in the Irish Times, this is not at all surprising,” McHale continues.

“Members of the Assembly have received virtually no working documents on legalization, and especially no representatives of other countries that have legalized have been invited to share their expertise. »

The omission of medical cannabis

There was also no discussion about medical cannabis and the major challenges that remain when it comes to patient access.

Ireland has been criticized for its “restrictive” medical cannabis policy. The medical cannabis access program (Medical Cannabis Access Program, MCAP) was launched in 2019, but access is limited to people meeting one of three requirements.

To date, fewer than 100 patients have been able to access cannabis-based medicines through this program, with many traveling abroad to legally access cannabis.

“It is disappointing that medical cannabis has also not been given a thorough review, despite it being a major issue for many people in Ireland,” added Mr. McHale.

“There should have been more emphasis on the issues affecting cannabis users of all stripes, including oral testimony from a number of patients who have fled Ireland or are consuming on the illicit market. »

What is happening now?

The recommendations are just that – recommendations – and it will then be up to policymakers to follow them and decide whether they should be implemented in the country’s drug laws. However, citizens’ assemblies have already had significant leverage in enabling constitutional changes on a number of key issues.

The format grew out of the 2012-2014 Constitution Convention which considered a wide range of constitutional issues identified for discussion. Following this convention, the government held the Marriage Equality Referendum in May 2015, which introduced same-sex marriage.

The model was then applied to a series of citizen assemblies covering a wide range of issues, including abortion, culminating in the referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment in 2018.

Speaking after the meeting on Sunday 1 October, Mr Reid said the Citizens’ Assembly represented the most comprehensive assessment and review of drugs policy in Ireland, and he added that members were well equipped to approve final recommendations in the coming weeks.

“Over the next three weeks, members will receive draft recommendations that reflect the nature of the conversations held to date. They will have the opportunity to further discuss these draft recommendations to ensure that they reflect the nature of these discussions. Members will then vote on these recommendations at the next meeting at the end of the month,” he commented.

“This is a thorough process. All sides of the debate, many different points of view and local, national and international perspectives were shared. Members now have the opportunity to speak and I would like to thank them for their work and dedication in reaching a conclusion that will result in change. »

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