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Citizen Assembly on Drug Use: Review May 2023

The May meeting of the Citizen Assembly focused on the profound and often overlooked topic of the lived experience of drug consumption. Throughout the weekend, the assembly, comprising ninety-nine members, attentively listened to the personal stories shared by current and former drug users. These narratives shed light on the prevailing sentiments and reflections regarding our current drug policy.

Personal Testimonies

The beginning of the Assembly was opened by a number of video contributions from people who experienced the detrimental impacts of our drug policy. The individuals who courageously shared their stories conveyed a common feeling of detachment from society, describing themselves as mere statistics that society prefers to ignore. In exploring the multitude of reasons behind drug consumption, the contributors emphasised their undiagnosed mental health issues. They expressed how drugs became a form of self-medication, providing them with temporary respite from the tumultuous thoughts within their minds. This emphasised a clear correlation between drug consumption and mental health challenges. Furthermore, the contributors highlighted the role of trauma in their drug use, stemming from experiences such as foster homes, care homes, and various forms of abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual. One individual shared a heart-breaking account of finally gaining access to a treatment service after a long waiting period, only to be subsequently arrested and brought to court for an unrelated issue. This setback had a detrimental impact on their recovery process. Throughout all the contributions, one prevailing theme emerged: the system had failed these individuals. Whether it was in the realms of housing, healthcare, social services, or education, they were left stigmatised, criminalised, and denied the opportunity to reintegrate into society.

As part of the assembly's agenda, a panel consisting of individuals with both past and present experiences of drug consumption was invited to share their insights. The panel members eloquently described drug use as a symptom, highlighting the profound impact of personal, familial, and community trauma on their lives. One panellist recounted the relentless cycle of homelessness, imprisonment, and subsequent return to homelessness upon release, which rendered them unable to retrieve their children from the care system. Another panellist shared their personal experience, emphasising how recreational drug consumption has become normalised within student communities. The panel's most poignant statement was that addiction is essentially a trauma response—a symptom stemming from unresolved traumas. In this context, recreational drug consumption is essentially the same act, albeit without the accompanying trauma. These powerful testimonies provide a compelling foundation for evaluating our current drug policies and considering alternative approaches that address the underlying causes of addiction and support individuals on their path to recovery.

Insights From Frontline Workers

The Citizen Assembly also provided a platform for a panel of dedicated frontline workers, including paramedics, doctors, and other healthcare professionals, to share their experiences. It was acknowledged that the panel's perspectives might be influenced by their exposure to the negative aspects of drug consumption, as they primarily encounter cases that require urgent assistance and intervention. The frontline workers recognised that addiction represents only a fraction of the broader narrative surrounding problematic drug use. They stressed the importance of considering the underlying reasons for such drug use, particularly mental health issues and self-medication. When questioned by the assembly members about their recommendations, the panel expressed a need for expanded mental health services, specifically targeting youth mental health. They also advocated for the decriminalisation of drug use and substantial investment in comprehensive wrap-around services for individuals struggling with addiction and problematic drug use. During the discussion, a specific question was raised regarding the dangers posed by synthetic cannabis in an unregulated market. In response, one of the doctors on the panel emphasised that addressing the risks associated with synthetic cannabis requires a clear understanding of the substances people are consuming. This highlighted the increasing threat of contaminated cannabis products in Ireland and the challenges faced by frontline workers in responding to these substances.

The insights shared by these dedicated frontline workers shed light on the urgent need for a multifaceted approach to address drug-related issues. By acknowledging the complexities of drug consumption, prioritising mental health services, advocating for decriminalisation, and tackling the risks posed by unregulated substances, society can better support both individuals struggling with addiction and the dedicated professionals working tirelessly on the front lines.

Perspective from Family Members

The assembly also dedicated a portion of its proceedings to hearing from a panel of family members who have been deeply affected by addiction and problematic drug use. The underlying sentiment expressed by these individuals was one of exhaustion—physically, emotionally, financially, and socially. They shared their experiences of feeling like firefighters constantly putting out fires, grappling with the ongoing challenges that addiction brings into their lives. While the focus of the assembly was on problematic drug consumption, it was crucial to also listen to the voices of family members who are profoundly impacted by these issues. They highlighted the glaring lack of support services and the absence of a comprehensive dual diagnosis framework. This framework is vital to address the needs of individuals who consume drugs while also grappling with underlying mental health issues, which are often neglected or fall outside the scope of existing services. Once again, the family members spoke of the shame, fear, and stigma associated with drug consumption, further compounding the difficulties faced by both the individuals using drugs and their loved ones.

Insights from the Community

The assembly also welcomed a panel comprising individuals with first-hand experience in the community affected by problematic drug consumption. They shared their perspectives on how the community as a whole is impacted by these issues. In some communities, there is a pervasive sense of coercive control, where community members are hesitant to get involved due to fear of law enforcement or the potential consequences of speaking up. This leaves them isolated and voiceless, unable to address the challenges they face collectively. The assembly was disheartened to hear the account of a young child, merely six years old, who, when asked about their aspirations for the future, described the local drug dealer, admiring their seemingly glamorous lifestyle and expensive clothing. This highlights the insidious influence of drug consumption on impressionable minds within the community. The panellists emphasised a crucial point: People who consume drugs should not be seen as criminals; rather, they are individuals who have been repeatedly failed by the existing system at every turn.

It is essential to dispel the persistent myth that cannabis serves as a gateway drug, as ample evidence has debunked this claim. Fortunately, even the panel member who initially expressed this belief acknowledged the detrimental impact of keeping cannabis illegal. Namely, that it perpetuates the cycle of funding criminal gangs and hinders opportunities for reinvestment in communities, particularly those hardest hit by the enduring "war on drugs."

The perspectives shared by family members and community representatives serve as a powerful reminder of the urgent need for a compassionate and comprehensive approach to address drug consumption and its wide-ranging effects on individuals, families, and communities. By acknowledging the failures of the existing system, challenging stigmatisation, and redirecting resources towards community support and development, society can work towards a more inclusive and effective strategy for addressing addiction and problematic drug use.

Assembly Members Feedback

On Sunday, the assembly members had the opportunity to visit various treatment sites, and upon their return, a feedback session was held. The overwhelming sentiment expressed by the assembly members was one of anger and shame. One member passionately stated that the current drug policy of the Irish State should be a source of deep shame. Anger, fury, and shame resonated throughout the contributions of the assembly members. The fact that the general public is finally recognising the failure of the current system is seen as a positive development by those who have been vocal advocates for changing our approach to drug policy.

In his closing remarks, the Chair, Mr Reid, underscored the significance of this weekend as a landmark moment in the deliberation of this momentous issue. Highlighting the harm caused by criminalisation, he voiced the urgent need for solutions. Mr Reid reminded everyone that the assembly would be making strong recommendations to the government, and he urged the government not to wait for these recommendations before taking action to change its approach.

Representation of Non-Problematic Drug Consumption

While the weekend was a pivotal moment in the conversation around drug policy, there is a concerning lack of representation of non-problematic drug consumption. It was highlighted during the first meeting that 90% of drug consumption falls under the category of non-problematic use. However, it is troubling that 99% of the conversation seems to focus solely on the 10% of problematic consumers. The reality is that the vast majority of people can engage in recreational drug use without developing significant issues, much like many individuals can visit a bar and consume alcohol on the weekends without it leading to addiction or negative consequences. As we stand at a crossroads in our drug policy, it is essential to exercise caution. We must avoid merely replacing the label of a criminal with that of a patient. It is crucial to acknowledge that there will be many personal stories submitted to the assembly through the public submission portal, and among those stories, we hope to find accounts of positive and beneficial experiences with drug consumption. Although a small island we have a multitude of personal accounts of the benefits of a wide variety of drugs, you can ask any of the many patients who find benefits and relief from medical cannabis or one of the many who may find psilocybin beneficial, just to name two substances.

The weekend's discussions and experiences have shed light on the urgent need for a more comprehensive and inclusive drug policy that considers the full spectrum of drug use, addresses underlying issues, and provides support and services for those who need them. By recognising and amplifying the voices of non-problematic drug consumers, we can navigate this critical juncture and shape a drug policy that is rooted in evidence, compassion, and the well-being of all members of society.

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