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drug policy

Citizens' Assembly votes for health-led approach to drug use rather than legalisation

The health-led will involve a degree of decriminalisation.

THE CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY on Drug Use has voted to recommend that the State should take a comprehensive health-led policy response to dealing with people who are in possession of drugs for personal use, rather than voting for a legalisation and regulation approach. 

The health-led response option the assembly has voted in favour of entails a degree of decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use, in favour of referring people to health services. 

This includes the possession of cannabis, mushrooms (psilocybin), cocaine, and other drugs. 

The vote on the approach the assembly would recommend dealing with people found in possession with cannabis was the tightest, as 39 people opted for a health-led approach on the final count, and 38 opted for legalisation and regulation. 

For all other drug categories, a comprehensive health-led approach took the lead by a greater margin. 

In an earlier vote the assembly elected to recommend a “change in the status quo” on drug related policy in Ireland, but it is still in the process of deciding exactly what changes it will recommend. 

After five previous meetings, many presentations from experts and people with lived experience of addiction, the 99 people who make up the assembly are finalising the recommendations that will be put to Government by the end of this year. 

The options they were given included the ‘Status Quo’, meaning the current legal framework, a limited health diversion approach, a comprehensive health-led response, tolerance of possession of drugs for personal use, the legalisation and regulation of drugs possession for personal use. 

Under the comprehensive health-led response that the assembly has opted to recommend, the State would respond to personal drug use primarily as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. 

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

According to the policy voted in favour of by the assembly, this would minimise or potentially “completely remove” the possibility of criminal conviction and prison sentences for simple possession. 

The policy would see Gardaí referring people on to addiction services. 

This is similar to the approach taken in Austria and Portugal, which combine health diversion, decriminalisation and dissuasive sanctions. The assembly has heard about this model from several experts who made presentations. 

How Ireland would legislate for this approach remains a fairly open question. Under it, changes are likely to be needed to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, in combination with a further implementation with existing legislative provisions. 

New legislation would also be required, according to the recommendation the assembly has voted in favour of. 

The assembly has identified a number of key questions the Oireachtas should consider when it is considering how to balance the objectives of health diversion, decriminalisation, and dissuasive sanctions. 

These include: 

  • “Should the sancton of prison sentences for simple possession offences be removed entirely from the statute book? 
  • “What limits, if any, should there be on the number of times a person found in possession of drugs for personal use can be diverted to health interventions? Should no limit be set, or should a threshold be specified, beyond which a person would be referred back to the Courts for potential dissuasive sanctions (e.g a fine).”
  • “What dissuasive sanctions, if any, should be available for repeat offenders, and which body should apply those sanctions?”

The assembly will make a number of other key recommendations in its report, which are being finalised through a voting process which is currently ongoing.  

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