Citizens’ Assembly on drugs calls for ‘urgency’ to implement its recommendations

State should respond to drug use as public health issue rather than criminal justice issue, panel found

Under its central recommendation, the State would respond to drug use and misuse primarily as a public health issue rather than as a criminal justice issue. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

The Citizens’ Assembly on drugs has called for “urgency” from the government in implementing its recommendations in full, including its call for a decriminalised model, saying peoples’ lives and futures were “on the line”.

The assembly, which met from April to October last year, made 36 recommendations aimed at reducing the harm caused by illicit drug use, which were released in a report earlier this year.

Under its central recommendation, the State would respond to drug use and misuse primarily as a public health issue rather than as a criminal justice issue.

Speaking to the Oireachtas committee on drugs use on Thursday, the chair of the assembly, Paul Reid, said he “fully respects the role of this Oireachtas Committee in the next stage of this process, but we would call for urgency from Government”.


During the assembly’s time working on its recommendations, it learned that “while drug use is prevalent in all parts of the country, and among all socio-economic groups, we can clearly tell that vulnerable groups and disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately,” Reid said on Tuesday.

“We learned how addiction and dependency can destroy lives. We heard that organised crime gangs are inflicting drug-related intimidation and violence in cities, towns and villages across Ireland, and are luring vulnerable young people into criminality at an early age,” he said.

“We heard, also, about the limitations of the State’s response, which has not substantively evolved in several decades. We were stunned by the length of time it takes to introduce even modest changes.”

The assembly members were “frustrated and disappointed that even the modest proposals for a Health Diversion programme, signalled in the 2017 National Drugs Strategy and in the current Programme for Government, have still not been implemented”.

“This would at least have been a starting point for a health-led approach. We were concerned by the inadequate provision of drug services in community settings and in the prison system,” Reid said.

“Time and again, we heard that simply criminalising people is no way to deal with the problem”.

Among the other recommendations in the assembly’s report, it said a dedicated Cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach should be set up to oversee a policy “pivot” to the decriminalisation of illicit drugs.

The criminal justice system needs to move towards a comprehensive health-led response to the possession of drugs for personal use, the final report said.

“While possession of controlled drugs would remain illegal, people found in possession of illicit drugs for personal use would be afforded, first and foremost, extensive opportunities to engage voluntarily with health-led services,” it said.

This approach could completely remove the possibility of criminal conviction and prison sentences for possession of any illegal drug, it says. People found in possession of illicit drugs would be given a health referral, including access to addiction services.

The report says this is the practice in Portugal and Austria, where health diversion, decriminalisation and dissuasive sanctions are combined.

Other recommendations include greater supports for families and children impacted by drug use and strengthened services including the expansion of harm reduction measures and treatment and recovery services.

“We are acutely aware that, for tens of thousands of people in this country who are affected by drug use, the clock is ticking. People’s lives and futures are on the line. There is no time to waste,” Reid told the Oireachtas.

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson is a reporter for The Irish Times