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Ireland's Citizens' Assembly on Drug Use: The Key to Unlocking Access?


Irish Parliament

On 14th February 2023, the Irish Government agreed to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use with a mission to consider the legislative, policy, and operational changes that could significantly reduce the harmful impacts of illicit drugs on individuals, families, communities, and society.


The assembly will hear from those who have experienced the effects of drug use in families and communities, include citizen voices in the development of progressive drug policy, and gain knowledge from international experiences.


The outcome of this new assembly on approaches to drug use is eagerly anticipated. But what can the history of the Citizens' Assemblies in Ireland tell us about the changes this new drug-focused assembly could lead to?


A Track Record of Change

Significant societal shifts in Ireland over the last decade were seen following debate by citizens' assemblies.


In 2015, the recognition of same-sex marriage in the country came after a recommendation from a Constitutional Convention, a variant of a Citizens’ Assembly, commissioned in 2012. And, just over a year ago, a Citizens’ Assembly made a landmark recommendation to repeal the 1983 Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, a ruling that meant abortion was broadly illegal in Ireland except where the life of the mother could be proven to be at risk.


The Assembly recommended not only the repeal of the amendment but also the legalisation of abortion up to certain gestation limits. Although initially opposed, public opinion changed during the referendum campaign. In 2018, a national referendum took place, in which the Irish public accepted the assembly's recommendation, leading to significant legal and societal change.


How a Citizens’ Assembly works

The Citizen's Assembly

The Irish Parliament commissions assemblies, which each have 100 participants, including an independent chairperson and 99 randomly chosen members of the public.


Participatory democracy in action, the assemblies are representative of the Irish population. From abortion, gender equality, and climate change to the challenges of an aging population, the assemblies were proposed in 2011's Programme for Government and its commitment to establish a Constitutional Convention.


The examples set by the Citizens’ Assembly and Constitutional Convention in Ireland give us a clear demonstration of how real and impactful change can be achieved in areas of political deadlock by involving the public in decision-making.


What does the assembly mean for cannabis legislation?


With two meetings having already taken place in April and May this year, led by chair Paul Reid, the former CEO of Ireland Health Service Executive, the assembly has already highlighted the importance of the issues;

“It’s one issue when harm is caused by drug use and drug abuse but when harm is caused by some failings of policy, of legislation or of services, that’s just not right. This is an issue for policymakers, legislators, doctors, elected members to raise it to the level of urgency that it really needs. When we talk about stigmatisation or marginalisation, it’s a few communities that suffer worst… I call on the policymakers to think hard about that.”

There is however, concern about some anti-cannabis views put forward by members of the Advisory Support Group, including Professor Mary Cannon of the Cannabis Risk Alliance, who has previously stated;


“Cannabis use is associated with an increased risk for psychosis, suicidal behaviours, and other mental disorders. These risks have been consistently shown in large international studies. The evidence for the harms associated with cannabis use is much, much stronger than any evidence for its use as a ‘medicine’."

Peter Reynolds, former chair of the Cannabis Industry Council's Working Group on Ireland shared his concerns with Cannabis Health Magazine:


“They appointed the advisory group behind closed doors, and there isn’t a single drug policy expert in it, the majority of members are addiction specialists. These people have specifically campaigned against its legalisation. The whole idea of an assembly on drug use is that the policy isn’t working at the moment and there needs to be change. But who do they choose to chair it? The man who was the chief executive of the HSE, in other words, the man who is directly associated with and responsible for the existing policy.”

What lies ahead for the Citizens' Assembly on Drugs Use?

With upcoming meetings in June, September, and October, the hope is that the past success of Citizens Assemblies will be seen for this topic, bringing about a comprehensive and informed approach to drug use in Ireland. The assembly must submit a report and recommendations to the Houses of the Oireachtas by the end of 2023.


Maple Tree will be following the assembly's progress with interest. Notes from meetings can be found at citizensassembly.ie and the meetings are available on YouTube.



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