We are currently in the midst of the most important conversation in the history of the state with the ongoing Citizen Assembly on Drug Use. Never before has an open and honest conversation on this topic been had, especially one that is open to public feedback and submissions. A few short months before the Citizen Assembly was established in April, a Justice Committee Report on “An Examination of the present approach to sanctions for possession of certain amounts of drugs for personal use” was released. Following submissions, evidence and presentations from stakeholders, this report was a welcomed addition. The report contained multiple progressive recommendations to reform our drug policy in Ireland which would lead the way for a drug policy based on compassion and human rights, recommending reforms such as decriminalisation, and cannabis social clubs and also included the recommendation for legislation and regulation.
This report coupled with the ongoing Citizen Assembly has sparked an increase in interest in the topic of drugs and how we approach cannabis in Ireland from people and fellow TDs. In a normal world, a government department would be spearheading this conversation and be a central point of contact, but not in Ireland. Through Freedom of Information requests seen by The Cannabis Review, we can see neither the Department of Health nor the Department of Justice is willing to claim the drugs brief as their own.
The memo below was distributed throughout the Department of Justice following the release of the Justice Committee Report on "An Examination of the Present Approach to Sanctions for Possession of Certain Amounts of Drugs for Personal Use" in December 2022.
The following February saw members of opposition parties beginning to seek answers to their multiple questions regarding the recommendations contained in the report and the status of the recommendations and what if any action is being taken. On 12th February Cian O’Callaghan TD asked the Minister for Justice what if any actions have been taken on implementing the recommendations made in the Justice Committee Report.
Despite the inquiries directly relating to the justice report, the Department of Justice attempted to forward them to the Department of Health.
The Department of Health refused to accept jurisdiction stating repeatedly the matter relates to Justice, not Health. The Department of Justice repeatedly stood its ground reiterating that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 falls directly under the Minister for Health and not the Minister for Justice.
Despite some resistance, the Department of Justice ultimately addressed the Parliamentary Question but did not provide a satisfactory answer. Minister for Justice Simon Harris acknowledged that the implementation of actions involves various stakeholders, including the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Hildegarde Naughton, as well as An Garda Siochana and his own department. Minister Harris further clarified that the responsibility for the Misuse of Drugs Acts falls under the jurisdiction of the Minister for Health. Ongoing internal disagreements were revealed through Freedom of Information requests, as multiple questions were submitted over the following months.
In March Holly Cairns TD inquired about the report asking similar questions relating to its status and implementation of recommendations to an unsatisfactory answer. Again, the two departments played a game of hot potato refusing to accept responsibility.
Officials in the Department of Justice again sought to refuse these questions stating that the drugs policy brief fell under the Department of Health. This was refused as the question pertained directly to a report by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice.
After a prolonged period of shifting responsibility, inquiries were redirected to the Department of Health instead of the Department of Justice in the hopes of receiving a response. However, the Department of Health declined to take jurisdiction over these questions and attempted to refer them back to the Department of Justice, resulting in the unanswered status of the inquiries.
As evident from the correspondence above, both departments are unwilling to assume responsibility for our drug policy brief. This is not a new phenomenon, for many years requests have been bounced between both departments leaving questions not answered. This has resulted in a state of confusion among the staff responsible for handling these requests and, more significantly, confusion among the people of Ireland. The extent of this confusion and the avoidance of such a crucial issue underscores the necessity of a Citizen Assembly on Drugs, as well as sheds light on the lack of action and evasion concerning this matter by past governments.
Without effective collaboration and coordination between government departments in formulating a policy approach, reports and recommendations for reform are prone to be overlooked. It is imperative that a department takes full control of the brief, assumes ownership, and initiates tangible progress in addressing this issue.
Special thank you to members at Crainn for sharing their Freedom of Information responses with us.