The Irish Times view on the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use: a valuable contribution to a necessary debate

If implemented, the assembly’s recommendations would represent a radical shift from traditional policy

Following its final meeting last weekend, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use has now published its 36 recommendations to the Government and Oireachtas. Taken together, they constitute an unequivocal call for comprehensive change in how the State addresses the profound challenges posed by the widespread use of illegal drugs. If implemented, they would represent a radical shift in policy.

In their final deliberations, assembly members voted decisively for a health-led response, de-emphasising the role of the criminal justice system and decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use. This health-led policy would treat drug use and misuse primarily as a public health matter, with people found in possession of illicit drugs for personal use being given the opportunity to engage voluntarily with health-led services.

After decades of waging the so-called war on drugs with little or no sign of success, there is an increasing appetite among governments around the world for new approaches to the problem. Much attention has been paid to Portugal, which responded to an epidemic of heroin addiction by decriminalising personal possession in 2001. Advocates of the Portugese approach point to clear evidence of positive outcomes, including a fall in drug-related deaths and a decline in both incarceration and infection. Citizens’ Assembly chair Paul Reid has described its recommendations as an “Irish version of the Portuguese model”.

While most of the main recommendations were agreed by a wide margin, there were sharper divisions over the question of whether Ireland should legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis, as has happened in several other countries recently. The Assembly voted by a margin of just one vote against legalisation, which had been opposed by many medical professionals concerned about the short and long-term effects of the drug, particularly on mental health.


The explanatory note provided with the recommendations accepts that legislative changes could be complex and that they will need to be underpinned by a clear national strategy. Some observers might argue that decriminalisation is already de facto in place, since prosecutions are increasingly rare for possession of small amounts of drugs. That would be to misunderstand the radical nature of what is proposed, and the shift in resources and mentality required if it is to have a chance of succeeding. That is not assured. Reports from Portugal suggest that drug-related crime is rising, with calls in some quarters for a partial reversal of decriminalisation.

Opinions will inevitably differ among members of the Oireachtas, as they do among the public, on the best strategy to adopt. But it should be clear to all that the current approach has failed. The assembly has made a serious and worthwhile contribution to an important and necessary debate.