April saw the beginning of the long-awaited Citizen Assembly on Drug Use hold their inaugural meeting in Dublin. Originally scheduled to begin in 2022, the beginning of the assembly was welcomed by all. The Assembly was chaired by Paul Reid and opened the meeting by stressing the importance of listening to the experiences of everyone and ensuring a respectful and constructive debate on the topic of drugs. This is the most extensive and engaging conversation on the drug issue in the history of the state with lived experience of people to be at the centre of the discussion.
The Assembly, consisting of 99 members of the general public, the Chair, and a number of subgroups, are tasked with examining legislative, policy and operational responses to drug consumption in Ireland, with cannabis firmly on the discussion table. The mammoth task ahead of the Assembly began on Day 1 when members heard a range of contributions, including an overview of the Irish landscape, the most recent figures and stats of drug use in Ireland and contributions from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) who gave an overview of the European perspective.
The Health Research Board outline the most recent statistics from 2019 in Ireland. To my surprise, 0% of people consume drugs alone, and only 9% consume drugs and alcohol together. Although these stats are 4 years old, they are the most recent official figures. In terms of cannabis, the 2019 survey showed that 7% of the population consumes cannabis, the majority consuming herb, although the rise in popularity of edibles was noted in the report with 47% of consumers reporting consuming edibles. It is also important to note that this is based on people self-reporting their drug consumption. With the criminalisation and stigmatisation of drug consumption, the accuracy of these figures is debatable.
Dr Jo-Hanna Ivers from the School of Medicine in Trinity College Dublin, who holds the only addiction-specific academic post in Ireland, spoke about her experience of drug use and losing family members to drugs. She highlighted that not only did she lose family members, but she also lost members of the wider community and saw the impact this had on the community as a whole. Her contribution focused on the risk of drug use and the risk of addiction, but she also highlighted the important fact that not all drug consumption is problematic. She noted that an estimated 10% of drug use can be deemed problematic, meaning that 90% of people who consume drugs do so in a non-problematic or beneficial way.
The highlight of day one of the Assembly was the fireside chat where Dr Sharon Lambert (UCC), Philly McMahon, Andy O’Hara (UISCE) and Pauline McKeown sat down to discuss a person-centred perspective on drug consumption. The conversation highlighted the lived experience of people who use drugs and how criminalisation, shame, stigma and society can feed into the lived experience of the person, and often results in compounding the damage the criminalisation does. Panel members reminded me and attendees that it is not just the person who is consuming drugs that our current approach affects. The families and communities also experience the stigma, shame and damage that criminalisation can bring, often leading to families and communities out casting people and feeling shameful of their family members.
The fireside chat was one of the most open and honest conversations on drug consumption we have had to date, it took the person out of the academic conversation and brought the conversation to ground level and how our current policy can create more barriers for people who consume drugs rather than open doors for them. Day one was enlightening and really brought the lived experience of people to the floor for consideration in an empathetic way.
Day two saw a more cautious theme to the possibility of drug reform. From an international perspective, we heard from Giovanna Campello from UNDOC who spoke about the international perspective. She highlighted that the preamble to international drug conventions cements the right to health, which should be a focus of our drug policy. We then heard from Thomas Kattau from the Pompidou Group who spoke about the increased focus on a human rights approach to drug consumption. Highlighting the impossibility of securing public health and safety through oppressive measures, he noted that a range of human rights feed into this conversation such as the right to health and the prohibition against forced medical treatment. He also highlighted that the lack of harm reduction in drug policy will create a public health risk.
Coming back to the current Irish landscape, a presentation from the Department of Health highlighted that €140 million is spent on health expenditure relating to drugs, with an additional societal cost of €650 million. Ben Ryan from the Department of Justice laid out our current criminal justice policy approach to drug consumption. He reiterated that a previous working group did not come to a universal agreement on policy reform and relied heavily on Justice Sheehan’s dissenting report from the 2015 Working Group on alternative approaches to criminal sanctions which concluded that reform is not and should not happen. Ben Ryan did not mention the recent Justice Committee report which takes a more positive approach to reform. He stated that decriminalisation in a similar fashion to Portugal would effectively mean legalisation in an Irish context due to the differing legal systems.
Justin Kelly the Assistant Commissioner from An Garda Síochána spoke about the concerns of the force should reform happen. He reiterated previous concerns over the loss of their stop and search powers under Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 should personal possession of drugs be decriminalised or legalised and that these powers are highly important to the everyday policing work in the state. He stated that the focus is not on people who carry drugs for personal possession, instead, the focus of policing in Ireland is on sale and supply and gangland activity in relation to drugs. He reiterated previous statements made by Simon Harris TD in the Dáil that people who consume drugs recreationally have a direct link to international gangs and the damage and violence that stems from the international illegal drug trade.
Day two in general was underlined by a theme of negativity and advocating for the status quo of prohibition and criminalisation. There were multiple calls for an increase in funding for mental health services and treatment services, with reiterations that the current approach is health led which I find debatable at best. In comparison to day one which was filled with heartfelt stories, it was disappointing to hear some advocating for the status quo of prohibition.
Throughout the two days, Assembly members were given the opportunity to ask questions to panellists. What surprised me was the calibre of questions coming from the Assembly members, the questions asked were nuanced and based on a high-level understanding of the topic of drug consumption in Ireland and the failures of our approach. I have always been of the opinion that the public is ahead of politicians on this issue. The calibre of the questions coming from Assembly members proves that point.
The Assembly will hold a number of meetings over the coming months, with the final report due by the end of the year. Although there is no obligation for the government to implement the recommendations of the Assembly, I take comfort from previous assemblies where we can see that all recommendations were implemented. There is a commitment from the Oireachtas to consider any recommendations, which given past experience means t eh recommendations will be passed over to an Oireachtas Committee for deliberation and discussion. Once the Assembly has completed their work, the umbilical cord will be cut, when the report is passed to the political arena.