It is Clear the Citizens' Assembly is an Exclusive Club, not an Inclusive Exercise of Democracy: Mr. Paul Reid (the chair of the Citizens' Assembly on Drugs Use) said in a press release today that the Citizens' Assembly will be "the most ambitious and far-reaching discussion on drugs[...] that has ever taken place in Ireland." But to those of us keeping an eye on it since the establishment of the current government, it appears a secretive, closed-off talking shop for conservative figures. Citizens' Assemblies have been hailed in Irish society for providing the country with imaginative ways forward when dealing with complex, and often politically emotive issues.
For example, the Citizens' Assembly process acted as a catalyst on issues regarding abortion rights and gender equality, providing space for rational discussion and analysis in a typically charged debate, bringing about real change. For advocates working on progressing Irish drug policy, the establishment of a Citizens' Assembly on drugs seemed like a perfect solution to the deadlock Irish drug policy has been stuck in for decades, bringing the voices of those often ignored in the debate to the forefront. However, in the past few weeks, it has become clear that this particular exercise of deliberative democracy (if one can even call it that!) is far more exclusive, prioritising the voices of establishment figures with already strong views on drugs. We see this with the stakeholder meetings that took place at the end of March, which happened broadly in secret. It featured an exclusive list of invitees and seemed more like a networking event for establishment figures, rather than an opportunity for organisations to learn more about the process.
Further, no information has been given on how the public can engage with the assembly, and how experts can bring their expertise and recommendations forward unless they are one of the small few approved groups already deeply involved. This pattern emerges again when looking at the membership of the "Expert Advisory Group" that helps set the agenda and running order of the entire process. The group was appointed behind closed doors, with no public application for membership, and includes anti-cannabis activist and long-standing member of the 'Cannabis Risk Alliance', Mary Cannon. Their influence is already evident. Just today a panel of people with "lived experience" when it comes to drugs was revealed and features not a single cannabis user, medical cannabis patient, or spokesperson on the harmful effects of punitive drug prohibition.
And there's more! The first weekend's timetable for the Citizens' Assembly has just been revealed and will feature input from the Department of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Gardaí. All three organisations are notoriously anti-reform and difficult to deal with. In order for this Citizens' Assembly to work, the process needs to be more transparent and inclusive, and stakeholders/experts should not be left in the dark when it comes to engaging with the process. Engagement should be encouraged and fostered, not shut out, and allowed only for those who have always had a voice.