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Ireland's Citizen Assembly on Drug Use: A Call for Progressive Drug Policy

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Ireland's Citizens' Assembly on Drug Use is on the verge of recommending significant alterations to the nation's approach to illegal drugs, with a pronounced emphasis on relaxing possession laws for common illicit substances. Chairman Paul Reid has revealed that, after six months of thorough deliberations encompassing all facets of illegal drugs, the assembly appears poised to advocate for decriminalisation, though not outright legalisation, of select substances.

Reid, former HSE chief executive and assembly chairman, has highlighted a prevailing "mood for change" among assembly members. The assembly's primary focus has encompassed three core areas: services, funding, and policy. Nevertheless, the most prominent media attention has gravitated towards the central question of whether drug decriminalisation or legalisation should be pursued.

According to Reid, there is a consensus among members that the current status quo, marked by criminalisation, is unduly harsh and insufficient.

Paul Reid, Chair of the Citizen Assembly
Paul Reid, Chair of the Citizen Assembly

While diverse viewpoints exist among assembly members, a majority seems to lean towards decriminalisation over legalisation. Reid acknowledges that while some favour full legalisation, they remain in the minority. Within the assembly, extreme positions abound, underscoring the issue's complexity. Some members advocate for liberalising specific drugs while maintaining a prohibition stance on others. For instance, they may propose the decriminalisation of cannabis while retaining penalties for heroin or cocaine, or conversely, they may suggest decriminalising both cocaine and cannabis. These scenarios remain plausible outcomes.

Notably, Ireland's police force, An Garda Síochána, consistently voiced opposition to drug legalisation during their presentations to the assembly. However, some assembly members found their arguments unsatisfactory, perceiving anecdotal evidence as insufficient to support their claims. Frustration has arisen among members due to the perceived lack of progress in implementing legislative changes towards a "health-led approach" to drug offences, a strategy approved by the government in 2019 following an agreement in 2017.

The assembly's discussions over the weekend primarily revolved around the theme of prevention, with a resounding call for drug policy reform echoing throughout. Professor Catherine Comisky, from Trinity College Dublin, delivered a powerful presentation emphasising the urgent need to combat the stigma surrounding drug use. She stressed the importance of adopting a trauma-informed approach that delves into the reasons why people turn to drugs. Comisky passionately urged assembly members to be unafraid in their policy choices, imploring them not to let down any more of Ireland's citizens, highlighting the failures of the current system.

Overview of steps in the brief intervention process

A significant focus was placed on health diversion programs, aimed at addressing personal possession cases. Under such programs, individuals found in possession of cannabis would be referred to health services for brief interventions, providing support and education rather than punitive measures. I have previously raised my concerns regarding mandatory health referrals and how they can be coercive in nature, this is especially important when 80-90% of cannabis consumers are non-problematic consumers.

Cheif Medical Officer Breda Smyth
Cheif Medical Officer Breda Smyth

Chief Medical Officer Breda Smyth concentrated her presentation on cannabis. She asserted that one in three young people could become addicted to cannabis with frequent use, emphasising that potency has surged by 57% over recent decades. This increase underscores the dangers of an unregulated market and the prevalence of synthetic substances with high THC content in Ireland and drawing attention to the need for comprehensive reform.

Dr Ian Marder, Maynooth University
Dr Ian Marder, Maynooth University

Dr. Ian Marder, representing Maynooth University, delivered an impactful presentation emphasising the harm caused by criminalisation, which inherently stigmatises individuals. marder who, alongside others, has in the past weeks been vocal about the quality of evidence available to the assembly , called for decriminalisation, regulation, and legalisation of drugs, coupled with the removal of criminal records for personal possession convictions. He urged the assembly members to be courageous in their recommendations, cautioning that whatever proposals they put forward might be diluted during the legislative process.

Throughout the weekend, a prevailing message emerged, imploring assembly members to be bold in their recommendations. Ireland's current drug laws have endured for over four decades, making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect change. The assembly aims to pave the way for a fairer, better society, one that addresses the critical issue of drug use comprehensively and compassionately. As the assembly reaches its conclusion, the call for progressive drug policy resonates loudly, challenging Ireland to break free from the shackles of outdated drug laws and embrace a more compassionate, evidence-based approach for a brighter future.

With the closing of presentations and evidence, after hearing over 180 hours of speakers, the next step for the assembly is to agree on their recommendations. Paul Reid Chair of the Assembly stated “Over the next three weeks members will receive draft recommendations that reflect the nature of the conversations to date. They will have the opportunity to discuss these draft recommendations further to make sure they accurately reflect the nature of those discussions. Members will then proceed to vote on these at the next meeting at the end of this month.” We will be watching in earnest to see what recommendations come from this process, and I am optimistic these recommendations will be progressive on all fronts.

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