The September session of the Citizen Assembly on Drugs was centred around examining criminal justice aspects and potential legislative remedies. Throughout the weekend, various speakers, including representatives from law enforcement, academics specialising in criminal justice, officials from the Irish Prison Services, individuals with lived experiences, and advocacy groups pushing for transformation and reform, presented their insights.
The session started with a discussion concerning the quantity and topics of written and video submissions received by the assembly. Impressively, there were a total of 775 valid submissions, among which 650 emanated from the general public. This high level of participation underscores the significance of this subject matter. Equally notable were the recurring themes in these submissions, predominantly advocating for reform. A mere 26 submissions argued in favour of maintaining the existing status quo, while only 15 called for an even harsher stance on criminal punishment. Most submissions championed decriminalisation, regulation, and legalisation, emphasising the merits of adopting a public health-oriented approach, promoting education, highlighting the potential economic benefits in terms of revenue and employment opportunities, as well as alleviating the burden on Garda resources, all while ensuring greater medical accessibility.
In contrast to previous assemblies, there was a more vocal presence in favour of preserving the current system of prohibition in this session. Retired Garda Michael O’Sullivan contended that the status quo and prohibition are effective, asserting that the criminal justice system plays a vital role in directing individuals toward treatment. He insisted that the existing approach to drug use is functional. However, this stance prompted an audience member to question the apparent contradiction: if everything is indeed functioning optimally, why convene a Citizen Assembly at all? This query garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience. Mr. O’Sullivan went on to emphasize the necessity of comprehensive drug education, arguing that the term "war on drugs" wrongly suggests that law enforcement alone can resolve the issue, a notion he acknowledged as fallacious. Nevertheless, it could be suggested that Mr. O’Sullivan's perspective on this matter, shaped over his 40 years of experience, might be characterised as somewhat entrenched and resistant to alternative viewpoints, despite his recognition of the issues tied to the current approach of criminalisation.
Seamus Boland, a detective from the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Unit, which was established in 2015, provided a revealing perspective. He presented statistics from 2015 indicating that the cannabis market in Ireland was valued at approximately €47 million. Considering the elapsed eight years, it's reasonable to assume that this valuation has significantly increased. Boland delved into how criminal organisations are shifting their focus toward countries and states that have embraced legalisation, with an eye on infiltrating these legal markets. This strategic move would allow criminal gangs to effectively launder their ill-gotten gains through a legal and regulated system. This underscores the vital importance of adopting a not-for-profit social club model for cannabis reform in Ireland. The existing scenario is one where criminal gangs perpetuate violence and intimidation in their illicit drug operations. Transitioning to a not-for-profit system would ensure that profit doesn't become a motivating factor within the framework of a social club model for cannabis reform.
The Lived Experience Group, established as an advisory entity to collaborate with the assembly, had the opportunity to express their reflections and feedback on the presentations. The group's sentiment of anger and frustration was palpable. They brought attention to the critical issue of the criminal justice and rehabilitation systems operating in isolation, resulting in persistent barriers to accessing essential treatment and services. Furthermore, they lamented how successive governments, including the current one, have deferred action on critical reports, allowing them to languish on shelves with minimal follow-through. The group also drew attention to the policing of personal drug consumption and the use of stop-and-search powers, which they contended have led to harassment, especially among already over-policed individuals and areas. Once again, the group expressed their support for decriminalisation, emphasising that it represents a harm reduction strategy rather than a comprehensive solution to drug use.
Concluding the discussions, Andy O’Hara from UISCE succinctly stated, "If we carry on as we are, we need to build more prisons and more graveyards," underscoring that the issue is far from simple, and the question at hand extends beyond mere conviction or non-conviction.
Assistant Commissioner Justice Kelly, who has previously advocated for maintaining our drug laws, reiterated his stance on Garda stop and search powers which are indispensable for the everyday functioning of the Gardai. He also contended that very rarely does a cannabis consumer receive a custodial sentence for possession. Instead, he explained that for a first offence, an adult caution is typically administered, and it's only on the fourth offence that a judge has the discretion to impose a custodial sentence. In reality, very few individuals end up in prison due to personal possession. While Mr. Kelly's statement regarding custodial sentences is accurate, it's important to note that the vast majority of cannabis consumers still receive a criminal conviction without a custodial sentence. The punishment primarily arises from criminalisation and the imposition of a criminal record, rather than the potential for a custodial sentence.
Tony Duffin, a member of the committee for the National Drug Strategy, provided insights into the efforts to establish a health diversion program. This program, initiated in 2019, is still not operational four years later, with ongoing research and work. Under this proposed framework, a first-time offender of drug possession would be referred to the health service for a briefing and intervention. On a second offence, it would be at the discretion of the Garda whether to issue an adult caution or proceed with a criminal charge. On the third offence, all discretion is removed, and an individual will face criminal charges. This approach contrasts starkly with other jurisdictions. In Ireland, a health screening is guaranteed only for first-time offenders, whereas in Portugal, for instance, a health screening and intervention occur every time drugs are detected for personal use.
If personal drug use is considered a health issue the first time, it logically follows that it remains a health issue the second, third, and fourth time.
Panel members examining legal frameworks delved into various reasons behind drug policy reform, such as product control, curbing youth access, resource allocation, revenue generation, and bolstering public health. They acknowledged that the law, as it stands, does not serve a rehabilitative function. Moreover, they emphasised that the success of Portugal's decriminalisation program is attributed to its management by the Department of Health rather than the Department of Justice. Professor Tom O'Mally from the University of Galway contributed by dissecting the distinction between sentencing and punishment. While custodial sentences handed down by courts receive substantial attention, it's crucial to recognise that the repercussions of punishment extend far beyond any time served in custody and can significantly impact individuals' lives.
Crainn, representing a voice of advocacy, addressed the audience regarding the imperative to "Take Back Control" of the cannabis market. He underscored the dangers associated with synthetic cannabis in Ireland, highlighting that legal and regulated jurisdictions experience minimal to no prevalence of synthetic cannabis products. Additionally, he shed light on the challenges faced by patients under the current Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP), with only 47 people currently benefiting due to its restrictive nature. Many patients are left with no choice but to rely on the black market or consider becoming medical refugees, relocating to countries with more accessible medical cannabis programs. Crainn also drew attention to the disproportionate number of stop and search operations in Ireland compared to a city like London, which has a population of 9 million. Nearly all of these stop and searches conducted by the Gardai are under the Misuse of Drugs Act, indicating a hesitancy to relinquish this power.
As the process progresses, we are now two-thirds of the way through, with two meetings remaining on September 30th - October 1st and October 21st-22nd 2023. The final report and recommendations are expected to be finalised by the end of this year, shaping the future of drug policy in Ireland.