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Citizen Assembly, what is it and how does it work?

It was announced yesterday that the long-awaited Citizen Assembly on Drugs will finally begin in April, and it is hopeful they will be able to report their conclusions by the end of the year. The assembly, originally due to be held in 2022 was pushed back, despite criticism, and instead, assemblies on biodiversity and a directly elected lord mayor were held. While we await the Government to set the terms of reference and elect a chair for the assembly, it may be useful to know how the process works and what it will entail.

A Citizen Assembly is a relatively new addition to the toolbox of democracy. It was first trailed in 2011 by a group of academics who established the “ We the Citizens” project. The project aimed to ignite citizen involvement in democracy and integrate citizens’ viewpoints into policymaking. The original project was focused on the Constitution and the potential reforms needed. From the original project, several recommendations were put forward, such as a referendum on marriage equality, climate change, and abortion. Since the original project, Citizen Assemblies have grown in number and popularity, not only in Ireland but across the world. Ireland is praised internationally for their Citizen Assembly structure and the radical recommendations developed in response to the questions posed.

In the past, a Citizen Assembly in Ireland has been convened on usually divisive topics, abortion, and marriage equality just to name two. But the results of these have been astonishing. For example, in the abortion debate, the assembly recommendations went further than the government would have been comfortable with. Nonetheless, it was put to the public vote in a referendum. The public voted 66% in favour of reform, and this public attitude was reflected in the assembly’s original report where 64% were in favour of reform. This shows the ability of a Citizen Assembly to spearhead radical policy changes that are reflective of public perceptions and opinions.

A Citizen Assembly consists of 99 Members and an independent Chair. Members are chosen at random from the general public to represent the views of the people of Ireland and were broadly representative of society as reflected in the Census, including age, gender, social class, regional spread etc. Lobbyists and serving politicians are not permitted to partake in the Assembly.

Originally Members were chosen at random from the electoral register. Following feedback and criticism that this was not a true representation of Irish society, this was changed to include a wider audience and those not registered to vote. In the previous Citizen Assembly, there was an option to register your interest in taking part, this is specific to your address and only one member of your household could take part if chosen. It is unclear if this process will continue to the proposed Citizen Assembly on Drugs, it may be confined to the specific question asked at the previous assembly.

The first step in establishing a Citizen Assembly will be setting the Terms of Reference. These are yet to be established, but it is expected that this announcement will come next week. These terms of reference will set the scope of the conversation and debate on drugs. These terms can be set as wide or as narrow as the Oireachtas dictates, so there is a danger that the conversation will be narrowed to exclude some important elements of our drug policy.

The Citizen Assembly itself takes place in four stages.

First, a public submission portal will open, inviting the public to make written submissions on the topic. This broadens the inclusivity of opinions beyond those selected.

Secondly, the Citizen Assembly will then hear presentations of evidence by expert witnesses. This will include presentations from stakeholders such as NGOs and other interested groups. These will be chosen by an Expert Advisory Group. The Oireachtas resolution establishing an Assembly will state that "an Expert Advisory Group will be established to assist the work of the Assembly in terms of preparing information and advice."

  • Supporting the Chair and Secretariat in constructing a fair, balanced and comprehensive work programme for the Assembly on each of the topics set out in the Oireachtas resolution.

  • Providing relevant expert advice on the issues being discussed, including data, research and reference sources;

  • Advising on the criteria for selecting specialists/ experts to appear before the Assembly.

  • Recommending names for the specialists/ experts to appear before the Assembly.

  • Working with the Chair and Secretariat to select speakers from civil society and advocacy groups.

The Expert Advisory Group is comprised of academics/practitioners across a number of specific fields of interest.

Thirdly, after listening to all presentations and submissions, the 99 Members will engage in a citizen discussion. Here they will discuss the evidence and submissions and debate their conclusions.

Fourthly, following the discussion, a guided deliberation process will be established. This will be conducted by trained facilitators with the aim of concluding their recommendations and ironing out any contentious points.

In the spirit of transparency, the assembly itself will be live-streamed, there will be a dedicated website, and like previous assemblies, there will be a strong media presence to heighten public awareness.

It is predicted that decriminalisation will be a hot topic for the assembly. Following increasing political and societal pressure, slowly Ireland’s politicians are understanding the need for reform, with decriminalisation at the front and centre. While often cited as the low-hanging fruit of drug policy reform, this will be the basis of the conversation.

Outside of this, the recent report from the Justice Committee may give us some guidance as to the scope of the conversation. The report gave us several recommendations, such as supervised injecting facilities.

More specifically to cannabis, the Committee recommended a number of options.

  • More research into not-for-profit collectives such as the social clubs we see in Spain and elsewhere.

  • Regulation of certain drugs.

  • Expansion of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme.

  • Expansion of drug testing facilities.

  • Expansion of the Spent Conviction framework.

If the above is included in the terms of reference, this would incorporate many options for the future of cannabis in Ireland. It will include patients, recreational consumers, growers, associations and most importantly with spent convictions, it will attempt to right the wrongs of the past.

Most of these have never been discussed in detail at a high level. The limited discussion we have had previously revolved around decriminalisation, which frankly, in 2023 is insufficient. We need the assembly to be as broad as possible to give the public choice. Recent polling has shown 93% are in favour of some sort of cannabis reform.

Recommendations from past assemblies have gone further than anything the government would have been comfortable proposing, and the same should apply today. Give the citizens the information that is there and allow them to debate it. I am confident that the assembly will conclude what many have been saying for years. The status quo of prohibition has never and will never work.

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