Citizens’ assembly set to call for liberalisation of drugs laws

‘Strong mood for change’ at assembly, says chairman Paul Reid, despite Garda opposition to drugs legalisation

The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use is set to recommend liberalisation of the laws around possession of common illegal drugs, according to its chairman.

Paul Reid says there is a “strong mood for change” among members of the assembly, which is nearing the end of six months of deliberations on all aspects of illegal drugs.

Recommendations supporting decriminalisation – but not legalisation – of some drugs are expected to emerge from the final weeks of consideration by assembly members this month, he forecast.

The assembly’s work has focused on three areas – services, funding and policy – with most media attention on the question of whether drugs should be decriminalised or legalised.


“There is a strong mood for change despite the best efforts of a lot of the statutory bodies,” Mr Reid, the former HSE chief executive, told The Irish Times. “No one feels the current status quo is sufficient. Something has to change. They feel criminalisation is harsh.”

He said he didn’t get a sense that a majority of members would legalise some or all drugs “though a rump would”. There were “extreme views on both sides in the room”.

It was possible members might favour liberalisation of some drugs but not others. “They might say decriminalise cannabis but don’t decriminalise heroin or cocaine, or decriminalise cocaine and cannabis. That’s a possibility.”

An Garda Síochána were “consistent and clear” in their presentations to the assembly opposing legalisation, Mr Reid said. “But they cheesed off members a lot in how they delivered them. It was felt they were using anecdotal evidence that didn’t stand up.”

He said there was a “lot of frustration” among members that legislative changes to a “health-led approach” to drugs offences agreed in 2017 and approved by Government in 2019 had not been implemented.

The assembly examined the experiences of other countries with liberalisation of drugs laws, in particular Portugal, which has decriminalised possession.

“Possession there is an administrative offence, like a parking fine. But they do have strong health-led diversion programmes, which you are required to do if you are caught in possession of drugs.”

Mr Reid said “the jury is out” on whether Portugal has seen the benefits of drug liberalisation.

Recurrent themes in the presentations made to the assembly included the role of early life trauma such as abuse in leading to problems with drugs; the fact that some areas are more challenged than others by drugs issues; and the changing nature of drugs use. This includes the rise in popularity of cocaine, and growing prevalence of poly-drug use, he said.

The alignment of drugs services is “very sporadic” across different areas, he added, and many voluntary organisations highlighted their struggle to recruit and retain staff.

“Speakers also highlighted how it is impossible to treat for addiction only without addressing wider social determinants around housing, health and education.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times