Campaigners are increasingly confident that a citizens’ assembly on drug use could take place this year in Ireland.
The PA news agency understands that a citizen assembly on the issue could take place in the spring.
The three coalition parties, upon entering Government in 2020, committed to holding a citizens’ assembly on drug use, which advocates say could be a major opportunity to rethink drug policy in Ireland.
Citizens’ assemblies have increasingly played a key role in Irish politics in recent years, especially in the build-up in the landmark referendum in 2018 that removed the country’s constitutional ban on abortion.
The Government has, as of yet, given no indication publicly as to when such a citizens’ assembly will take place, with another assembly on biodiversity also promised.
However, campaigners believe that Government is now serious about holding a citizen-led discussion on drugs very soon.
Dublin Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan, who worked to get the commitment to a citizens’ assembly in the coalition agreement document, told PA: “In my constituency, there’s very little that’s more important than drug policy. It’s a huge impact on the inner city.”
“The reform of drugs legislation is a complex area and not one where we necessarily share the views of our coalition partner,” she said.
“We felt the drugs citizens’ assembly was an excellent and objective way forward that could provide for evidence-based and person-focused change.”
In that forum, she believes that the voices of ordinary citizens, as opposed to experts and policymakers, are heard.
“The good thing about citizens’ assemblies is that they are predicated on listening and listening to communities and listening to people who are actually affected,” she said.
“I think if you actually talk to people and explain to them the problems and the challenges people are facing, they’re in fact not particularly conservative.
“I think Irish people are incredibly compassionate and also very practical.”
Ms Hourigan acknowledges that the real work often begins after a citizens’ assembly, to ensure that recommendations are listened to by the Government.
Campaigners are also adamant that the citizens’ assembly should not focus on issues like cigarettes or alcohol, with others also warning that an undue focus on the regulation of cannabis might also prove a distraction.
“I think there’s a concern that this wouldn’t become a citizen assembly on the legalisation of cannabis,” Ms Hourigan says.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane agrees.
“I think what’s important is that when we ask a question, we’re not naming specific drugs and we’re not naming alcohol or cigarettes or stuff like that,” she told PA.
“For me, it’s about drug use and harmful policy and that harmful policy hasn’t been reviewed in many, many years.”
She is also confident that the Government might be listening and willing to hold a citizens’ assembly.
A long-time campaigner for drug reform in Ireland, she says: “Someone that was around during the 90s when drugs really came to the fore in people’s minds, you can sometimes feel it in the air that something is hitting such a crisis point that it can’t be ignored anymore.
“The government has to be able to hear what is coming from communities on drug use.”
Ms Ruane says she took a while to accept the merits of citizens’ assemblies.
“I haven’t always been a champion of citizens’ assemblies in the sense that I would have a fear that it was being used as a delay tactic, to kick something down the road.
“But I then have to step back and look at the fact that we’ve had a huge impact from a number of citizens’ assemblies now. So I think they have proven to be worthwhile.”
For her, a discussion needs to focus on the broader impact of drug use on communities.
“If you’re having that in an open forum hopefully you can push back against people that are either too afraid to push forward with this or that actually just want to maintain the likes of prohibition or don’t really understand why harm reduction is important,” she says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health told PA news agency that officials are working with the Department of the Taoiseach on the timing and format of a citizens’ assembly on drug use.
“It is envisaged that the remaining citizen assemblies, including the citizen assembly on drug use, will be established after the Dublin mayor citizens’ assembly has completed its work. The specific timing of each assembly has yet to be confirmed,” the spokesperson said.
“The Department of Health’s approach to the citizen assembly on drugs use will be informed by the Government’s health-led approach to people who use drugs, as outlined in the national drugs strategy.”