After months of meetings and consideration, a group of 99 Irish citizens selected by the government to weigh in on the nation’s drug policy has voted to recommend decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of currently illicit substances and adopting a public health approach to the issue.
The panel also narrowly voted against endorsing the legalization and regulation of marijuana, however.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use posted summaries of 36 policy recommendations online Monday following the body’s final meeting over the weekend—the culmination of what the body’s chair, Paul Reid, called “the most comprehensive, wide-ranging, and representative discussion on all aspects of drugs use and drugs policy that has ever taken place in Ireland.”
The group’s overarching message, Reid said in a statement, was that lawmakers must “take a much more ambitious and progressive approach to dealing with drugs in Ireland.”
“Ultimately, it will be up to the Oireachtas to implement what the Assembly has called for,” he said, referring to Ireland’s national parliament. “But if they do, this will not only change the national policy and approach, it will also change people’s lives. For the better.”
— The Citizens' Assembly (@CitizAssembly) October 22, 2023
Citizens’ Assemblies are intended to give everyday Irish citizens who aren’t typically involved in policy deliberations the chance to debate a single issue, in this case drug policy. Members—who are selected by the government in a way that aims to be representative of the country’s population—examine public research, consider evidence from other countries and hear from experts and ordinary people alike.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use first met in April of this year and has since spent more than 200 hours discussing drug policies. They heard more than 120 presentations and considered nearly 800 public submissions.
Broadly, the three-dozen recommendations fall into six main themes:
- Recovery and supporting people with problematic drugs use within the criminal justice system
- Possession of drugs for personal use
- Governance and Implementation
- Funding and Resources, Service Design, Research
- Reducing supply, prevention, protecting young people and communities, harm reduction
- Innovation, research, referral of submissions
In many cases, descriptions of the recommendations are fairly short. The first, for example, says, “The National Drugs Strategy should prioritize a systemic approach to recovery.” Another says the government “should take urgent, decisive and ambitious action to improve its response to the harmful impacts of drugs use, including implementing necessary legislative changes.”
Other recommendations are more fleshed-out. Regarding the “comprehensive health-led approach” behind decriminalizing drugs, the recommendation summary says that “while possession of controlled drugs would remain illegal, people found in possession of illicit drugs for personal use would be afforded, first and foremost, extensive opportunities to engage voluntarily with health-led services.”
“Depending on how the legislation was designed,” it says, “this approach would minimise, or potentially completely remove, the possibility of criminal conviction and prison sentences for simple possession.”
Referrals to interventions would be designed to “assess, inform, dissuade and prevent people from developing problematic drug use,” an approach the body said mirrors policies of Austria and Portugal.
Other recommendations include strengthening treatment and recovery services for people within the criminal justice system, prioritize studying and addressing drug policy issues.
Now that the assembly has adopted its recommendations, it will prepare a more extensive description of each for a forthcoming final report.
Not everyone is impressed by the Citizens’ Assembly’s calls for change, however. The Irish harm reduction reduction advocacy group Crainn said the recommendations “are very good for grabbing headlines, but contain very little substance.”
“This broad recommendation gives room to the Oireachtas to fully interpret how they will deal with specific drugs such as cannabis,” says a statement by the organization. It warns that the newly proposed system would still allow law enforcement to stop and search people or force people to attend drug interventions.
“Some of our EU neighbours are currently reforming their cannabis policies to be more health-led and are including the legal regulation and sale of cannabis as a cornerstone in these health policies,” it adds.
The Assembly has given the Oireachtas a set of vague recommendations which are good for grabbing headlines, but contain very little substance.
— Crainn (@r_crainn) October 22, 2023
Crainn noted that a 2022 Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice arrived at “more nuanced findings about how cannabis should be dealt with,” for example by allowing personal cultivation of cannabis plants, establishing cannabis social clubs for noncommercial distribution and beginning to set up a system of regulation.
Moreover, a majority of the Citizens’ Assembly’s first-preference votes (51 percent) were for either legalization or decriminalization of cannabis, the group said. “This indicates an appetite to completely overhaul the State’s cannabis policy, including full legislative decriminalisation, regulatory implementation around sale and supply alongside the repeal of prior criminal convictions for cannabis use.”
The group shared video on social media in which one member of the assembly noted that members felt cannabis should be treated differently than other drugs, although 39 people voted for a health-focused approach to marijuana and 38 preferred legalization and regulation, according to The Journal.
Assembly members attempted to push back on the cannabis vote again today.
They asked Reid that the final recommendations to Government note that there was confusion, and that cannabis in fact should be treated differently.
— Crainn (@r_crainn) October 22, 2023
About a year ago, Irish lawmaker Gino Kenny introduced legislation that would have legalized possession of up to seven grams of cannabis and 2.5 grams of marijuana resin for personal adult use. Kenny said at the time he expected the country’s parliament to have a “wider debate” on cannabis reform in the coming year.
“We need a different narrative in relation to drug reform,” he said, “because criminalizing people for small possessions of any drug, particularly cannabis, is a complete waste of time and it’s a waste of resources.”
Medical cannabis is legal in Ireland, but patients must be individually approved by the Health Ministry and there’s been some criticism of delays with the government’s rollout of the program, according to Volteface.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, German lawmakers have officially begun consideration of a bill that would legalize marijuana nationwide. The country’s parliament, called the Bundestag, held the first debate on the legislation on last week after delaying the meeting due to the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
The legalization measure, spearheaded by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, would allow adults to legally possess cannabis and cultivate a maximum of three plants for personal use. It would also create social clubs that could distribute marijuana to members. Officials have said a forthcoming second phase of legalization will eventually launch a pilot program for regulated commercial sales of cannabis.
The framework was the product of months of review and negotiations within the German administration and the country’s “traffic light” coalition government. Officials took a first step toward legalization last summer, kicking off a series of hearings meant to help inform legislation to end prohibition in the country.
A group of German lawmakers, as well as Narcotics Drugs Commissioner Burkhard Blienert, visited the U.S. and toured California cannabis businesses last year to inform their country’s approach to legalization.
The visit came about two months after top officials from Germany, Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands held a first-of-its-kind meeting to discuss plans and challenges associated with recreational marijuana legalization.
Leaders of the coalition government said in 2021 that they had reached an agreement to end cannabis prohibition and enact regulations for a legal industry, and they first previewed certain details of that plan last year.
A novel international survey that was released last year found majority support for legalization in several key European countries, including Germany.
Image element courtesy of Ron Cogswell.