When it comes to cannabis, there is a clear disconnect between public opinion, policy and policing, say Ireland’s drug reform advocates.
In major cities, including Dublin, cannabis use is relatively ‘normalised’ and a poll carried out ahead of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs this year, found that over half of the population are in favour of legalisation.There is also some support from the political parties, with Labour backing cannabis legalisation in its submission to the Citizens’ Assembly and the People Before Profit party tabling a bill to legalise personal use.
But Ireland’s police services, known as the Gardaí, continue to tow a hard line on drugs. Despite the country supposedly operating under a ‘health-led approach’ since 2017, figures show that the number of charges for personal possession has doubled in the last five years.
There has also been a crackdown on those growing cannabis, even for medicinal use. Earlier this year, dad-of-two Patrick Moore was sentenced to five years for cultivation and supply of cannabis, the majority of which was being donated to severely ill patients. In November, a 71-year-old man was given a two-year suspended sentence for growing cannabis at home for personal use. At this point, it’s worth noting that medical cannabis is legal in Ireland for use in certain conditions, but only a fraction of those who need it have access (more on this later).
The Gardaí have spoken publicly about the fact that as an organisation it does not support the decriminalisation or legalisation of any drug. With its considerable influence among policymakers – and heavy presence during the Citizens’ Assembly – this has been described as one of the ‘main barriers’ to reform.
“From the point of view of a functioning democracy, it’s a fairly scary concept… the Justice Minister shouldn’t be taking guidance from the police, it should be the other way around,” says Brendan Minish, one of Ireland’s long-time drug reform activists.
“A number of our previous commissioners have risen through the ranks of policing and I think that’s part of the problem. If you’ve had a long career in drug policing, you do believe in the mission.”
The Citizens’ Assembly – a quick overview
In Ireland, previous Citizens’ Assemblies have held significant weight in enabling constitutional change on a number of key issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion – which led to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use was established in February 2023 to examine and make recommendations on drug policy with the aim of reducing the harms of illicit drugs on individuals and the wider community.
It was made up of 99 randomly selected members of the public and chaired by Paul Reid, who also happens to be the former chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE).
Over the last six months, members have heard a total of 180 hours of discussion from experts in health, policy, academia and frontline services, as well as hearing from individuals, families and communities who have been impacted by drugs.
The members voted on the final 36 recommendations to be submitted for consideration to the Houses of the Oireachtas at the end of October. Overall, it has been described as a comprehensive health-led response to drugs, including ‘decriminalisation’ for people found in possession of drugs for personal use.
But as always, the devil is in the details.
What impact will the Citizens’ Assembly have?
The outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly has been interpreted as a ‘broad call for change’, with almost half the members in favour of the legalisation of cannabis – falling short by only one vote.
But there is a feeling of ‘disappointment’ and concern that in reality, the recommendations will lead to little change from the Status Quo, particularly as they are free to be interpreted in whatever way is deemed suitable by the Oireachtas, which will ultimately determine how they can be legislated.
A key recommendation is that those caught in possession of drugs should be referred to health intervention services rather than criminalised. However, the Gardaí would still be required to carry out stop and searches on suspicion of drugs, including the smell of cannabis, and a referral to health services would only apply if it was an individual’s first time being caught.
“When you look into details of what the proposed scheme includes, it’s still led by the police and rooted in prohibition,” explains Ryan McHale, of drug advocacy and education organisation, Crainn.
“It’s not clear how it’s going to work. We don’t even have the resources in Ireland to cope with sending the thousands of people caught in possession [of drugs] each year to health intervention services.”
Not only this but if implemented, Minish thinks the approach could actually lead to an increase in incidences of stop and search, as these figures are currently capped due to the constraints of court time and resources.
“I actually think in the short term we will see cannabis users facing more persecution, not less,“ he warns.
“The figures we found from 2014 show that 147,000 people stopped and searched, that is around twice the current rate of the London Metropolitan Police, which is servicing twice as many people as the population of Ireland.
“Somewhere between 16,000-19,000 people are processed through the [justice system] each year, while about 6,500 actually go to court. But if there’s another system that they can process people through – under a health diversion scheme – I can see them using that as well.”
Conspiracy or just incompetence?
Despite members being told that the Assembly would focus on international approaches to drug policy, Nuno Capaz, general directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies (SICAD) in Portugal, was the only speaker to share his insights on decriminalising drugs.
There was no open call for applications to join the advisory committee group, which is understood to have played a fundamental role in enlisting speakers and presentations.
The appointment of Prof Mary Cannon, a former member of the Cannabis Risk Alliance (CRA), a group of doctors which engage in ‘anti-cannabis’ activism, was also controversial.
“I don’t think it was a conspiracy, more like incompetence,” says McHale.
“Most of the advisory group was made up of specialists in the addiction sector, which is fair enough, but it was disappointing to see someone associated with the CRA involved, without anyone there to provide balance.”
At least some of these issues can be put down to the tight remit of the Assembly. Discussions around non-problematic drug use, which accounts for ‘90% of all drug use’, according to Jo-Hanna Ivers [Associate Professor in Addictions and member of the Assembly’s Advisory Support Group], were deemed to be ‘beyond the terms of reference’.
As was medical cannabis, as it is already legal, despite less than 100 patients thought to have been able to access cannabis on prescription to date.
The Medical Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP), which was established in 2019, allows people living with one of three qualifying conditions to access a limited number of products. This includes intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, severe treatment-resistant epilepsy and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (MS).
As McHale says: “Medical cannabis may as well still be illegal here, as even those who do have access have to fight tooth and nail to get it. There was no room for discussion of this at the Citizens’ Assembly, even though the illicit use of medicinal cannabis is a huge issue and would have fallen within the terms of reference.”
What happens next?
While the impact of the Citizens Assembly’s recommendations remains to be seen, the fight for cannabis reform in Ireland rumbles on.
In January 2024, a bill brought by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, calling for the decriminalisation of up to 7g of cannabis for personal use, will have its second hearing in the Dail.
Kenny is ‘quietly confident’ that the bill will make it to the next stage.
“The government will be under a certain amount of pressure to implement some of the recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly, so I would be quite hopeful that it will pass,” he told leafie.
“If it doesn’t then it would not only call into question the government, but it also would raise question marks about the Citizens’ Assembly itself and the fact that people have given their time to make these recommendations that are a reflection of public opinion. Now we’re calling on the government to change the parameters of what we’ve been speaking about.”
Even if it does pass, as an opposition bill, there are a number of steps to proceed through before it becomes legislation, but it could play an important role in keeping the conversation going.
“The worst thing that could happen is if everybody was to just forget about this,” says McHale.
“The bill is modest and some say it doesn’t go far enough, but cannabis reform has been moving its way up the agenda and this is another step forward in the conversation, as well as a chance to get into more detail about what we mean by decriminalisation which the Citizens’ Assembly failed to do.
He adds: “It will be hard to make a robust argument against the legislation, it doesn’t commercialise, it doesn’t legalise, it just makes 7g or less a non-criminal matter.”
Although Minish fears the bill might have ‘missed the window’ now that the Citizens’ Assembly has come to a close, the issues facing Ireland’s drug policy are not going away – and neither is the campaign for reform.
“It works both ways, so if discussing the benefits of drugs or the fact that some people find them useful in their lives, were out of scope for the Assembly, then we’ve still got live issues,” he says.
“There are a number of ways we could get to reform quickly if we wanted to. Guidance from the top could say that there is no public interest in policing it, as has happened in some UK police districts, the same could be done here, but it needs to be policy because there’s a huge disparity in how people like me are policed compared to kids in the inner city.
Minish adds: “We keep hearing this issue referred to as a ‘wicked problem’. But it’s only a ‘wicked problem’ if you’re not willing to change any of the parameters under which you operate.
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