Community and voluntary drug groups are increasingly concerned at the Government's pace in establishing a promised citizens' assembly on drugs.
The pledge was contained in the most recent programme for government, a five-year document published in June 2020.
The assembly on drugs is one of four outstanding fora — the others being on a directly-elected Dublin mayor, the future of education, and biodiversity.
A fifth fora, the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality, completed its work in June 2021.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil earlier this month that the two assemblies to be established this year were the ones regarding the Dublin mayor and biodiversity.
In response to statements from Green Party TD Nessa Hourigan and Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordán that the drugs’ assembly needed to be set up urgently, the Taoiseach said the “intention” was to establish it in the “latter part of this year”.
When he was repeatedly asked by TDs and senators at the Oireachtas health committee last month, the drugs strategy minister Frank Feighan said there was currently no timetable for the drugs’ assembly, leading to speculation as to when it might happen.
In a statement today, the Department of Health said: “Minister Feighan expects the Citizens' Assembly on Drug Use will take place in 2023, once the citizens' assemblies on the Dublin mayoralty and on biodiversity are completed.”
Mr Feighan said he welcomed the clarity on the timeframe from Government leaders.
It stated: “The minister is very positive about the Citizens' Assembly on Drug Use and looks forward to its contribution to the Government's health-led approach to drugs.”
The statement said there were two issues in particular the minister wanted the assembly to consider — how to better meet the health needs of people who use drugs and how to minimise the harmful impact of drugs on children, families, and communities.
"I would like to see an international component to the citizens assembly, so that we can share good practice from the British Ireland Council work sector on drugs (which I chair) and the EU drugs strategy and action plan, which Ireland strongly supports," he said.
Anna Quigley, co-ordinator of the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign and long-time representative on the National Drugs Strategy National Oversight Committee (NOC), said that while there had been some successes in tackling the drugs issue, the overall trends over the last 25 years were “seriously worrying”. She said:
- Drug-related deaths had increased by 225%, compared to a 68% reduction in road deaths in the same period;
- 10,549 people had died from drug-related deaths, which, she said, was likely to be a “significant underestimate” of the actual number;
- The number of people prosecuted for possession of drugs for personal use increased by 484% over the last 25 years, with more than quarter of a million recorded crimes for possession of drugs for personal use;
- While the use of opiates has declined over the period, other drugs had seen "massive increases in usage", with cocaine use rising by 10,376%, benzodiazepines by 1,824% and cannabis by 263%.
“There is an urgent need for a citizens' assembly to look at the evidence and agree the policy changes that are needed to address these trends,” Ms Quigley said.
“Evidence also shows that the worst harms of criminalisation are experienced by people who are already disadvantaged and marginalised, and this speaks again to the need to address drug policies, including criminalisation, in the context of a broader strategy to combat poverty and marginalisation.”
Tony Duffin, chief executive of the Ana Liffey Drug Project and National Voluntary Drug and Alcohol Sector representative on the NOC, said it was “disappointing” to have to wait so long to begin a “much-needed” debate.
“Convening this citizens’ assembly is an essential opportunity to further inform future policy direction with regards to drug use in Ireland,” he said.