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April, 2023... Paul Reid at the Citizen's Assembly in the Grand Hotel Malahide for its first session on drug use. Leah Farrell

Opinion The Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use needs more diversity of speakers and thought

Lynn Ruane, Ian Marder and Cian O’Concubhair say independent, critical, expert voices on policing and criminal justice are desperately needed.

THE ONGOING CITIZENS’ Assembly on Drug Use has been in process since March of this year. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to critically assess Ireland’s five-decade-long ‘war on drugs’ and develop new policies that aim to reduce harm based on evidence.

To achieve its promise, this remarkable democratic process requires that the Assembly hear from a diverse array of experts and practitioners from across the globe. In March this year, before the Assembly began, we worked with a network of professionals and researchers internationally to develop a database of drug policy experts who could make informed, evidence-based contributions.

This database, presented to Ministers Donnelly, Harris and Naughten, included more than 50 experts from international bodies and governments, including politicians, researchers, police officers, other state actors, and activists. The goal was to ensure that Assembly members heard from those with broad expertise and knowledge of the evidence regarding a range of issues – including the effects of harm reduction services, legal regulation and decriminalisation on the one hand, and the consequences of criminal justice- and police-led responses to drug use on the other.

Who is listening?

We are deeply disappointed to see that, so far, there has been a failure to draw on that wealth of resources of international expertise, and that so many contributions to the Assembly continue to be dominated by parochial and ideological viewpoints that lack a basic appreciation for international evidence or best practices.

Until now, the Assembly has heard oral submissions about drug policing – the State’s primary regulatory response to drug use – from one serving and one retired Garda. One former Garda Assistant Commissioner has been invited to speak before the Assembly twice. By contrast, the Assembly has yet to hear from independent experts on police culture and practices, both highly relevant fields for the Assembly’s terms of reference. Reports of the Assembly’s last meeting in early September revealed comments by the current and former members of An Garda Síochána that were hyperbolic, misleading and did not align with the best available evidence.

First, Assembly members heard that decriminalisation ‘would not work’ in Ireland because of ‘criminal lunatics’ and ‘a level of criminality, violence and viciousness in our criminal underclass that the Portuguese are lucky they don’t have’. In reality, Ireland is mid-ranking in Europe (itself among the safest parts of the globe) in terms of crime rates, and police data in 2021 suggest an intentional homicide rate about half that of Portugal.

Certainly, it is not obvious that serious offending is any greater or less preventable here than in Portugal or in the many other countries that have moved away from criminalisation. What we do know, however, is that drug-related deaths plummeted in Portugal following decriminalisation in 2001, remaining below 2001 levels and well below the current EU average. States that have decriminalised have not observed a notable increase in violent crime.

There is also no tangible link between decriminalising a person who uses drugs and increased crime; under decriminalisation, the substance is still illegal, and the sale and supply of that substance remains so. It is a delusion that prohibition has deterred criminality.

Second, it was said that few people prosecuted for drug possession receive immediate or suspended prison sentences – ‘only’ 261 in 2022, despite dangerously overcrowded prisons – unless, that is, they have previous convictions. The use of ‘only’ here is quite crude and points to those lives as being worth less than others, as if those 261 individuals and the impact on their lives is irrelevant. It should be noted that even an Irish Minister for Justice conceded that the threat of prison for ‘serious’ drug offending fails to reduce drug availability or demand. Indeed, despite being among the most controlled and surveilled spaces in the State, drugs are easily available in most Irish prisons.

Moreover, prison is not the only harmful criminal justice response. Ireland saw 11,000 prosecutions for drug possession in 2022. This is a waste of (limited) police resources and (backlogged) court time and means that many thousands of people faced the violence and humiliation of arrest and, in many cases, the stigma of a criminal record and a punitive sentence aside from imprisonment. The evidence also shows that the aggressive policing of drug possession offences has little or no deterrent effect, but leads to worse health outcomes for drug consumers as they are more likely to adopt riskier drug purchasing practices.

Third, the Assembly heard that young people who do not use drugs are deterred from doing so by the fear of prosecution while using the courts to compel people to engage with addiction services is ‘cruel, but effective and very necessary’. Again, this shows a total lack of knowledge on these issues. People decide to consume intoxicants or not for a wide range of reasons beyond their legal status. International evidence does not support the idea that legal changes will result in huge numbers of young people taking currently illicit drugs for the first time. Since Ireland began criminalising drug possession in 1977, problematic drug use has grown to among Europe’s highest levels.

In any case, we are more concerned with harm than with use, and drug harm is better reduced by consensual engagement with health-led services under decriminalisation than by coercive, criminal justice responses under the current model.

The reality is that the criminalisation of drug use itself causes huge amounts of harm. It wastes police resources that can be better spent elsewhere and has toxic and corrupting effects on policing itself.

It undermines efforts to improve public health by encouraging high-risk behaviours among people who use drugs, disincentivising them from engaging with the available support and, paradoxically, making it politically difficult to invest in well-evidenced services that will make us all safer. Ireland’s ‘war on drugs’ is also radically over-inclusive: claiming on the one hand to be designed to reduce harm, while overwhelmingly targeting for criminalisation and stigma drug use which is not problematic or harmful.

The Assembly

Narrowing the scope of the Citizens’ Assembly to exclude critical perspectives will ultimately hinder the Assembly from fully engaging with its subject matter and reaching its transformative potential. Critical policing and criminal justice expertise, independent of the Irish police and State, is needed to correct the imbalance in the mix of speakers and viewpoints that Assembly members have heard so far. Not only would this be of great value to Assembly members in undertaking their duties, but media reports and Assembly broadcasts indicate that they would welcome this.

The Citizens’ Assembly is a unique opportunity to see deliberative democracy in action and to have a meaningful and ground-breaking conversation about drug regulation in Ireland. We truly believe in its potential. Our concerns are raised in good faith, solely intending to support and enhance this democratic exercise. We believe that the Assembly will be most effective if the expert contributions made to the Assembly are the best they can possibly be.

Recent research shows that participants in Assemblies listen to and are influenced by expert input. This is why broad, holistic, well-rounded and evidence-based contributions from diverse experts are crucial to obtaining the best outcomes from the Assembly.

We (Lynn and, separately, Ian and Cian) have written letters to the Assembly outlining our concerns. It is not too late for the Assembly’s administration to take steps to correct these problems. The remaining sessions can include some international expertise on highlighted topics. We remain hopeful they will do so and that the Assembly will still provide the impetus for a drastic change in Irish drug policy, on which so many are counting.

Senator Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. Dr Ian Marder is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Maynooth University. Dr Cian O’Concubhair is Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at Maynooth University.


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Lynn Ruane, Ian Marder & Cian O’Concubhair