Nicholas takes a look at the report: An Examination of the Present Approach to Sanctions for Possession of Certain Amounts of Drugs for Personal Use and what this means for the upcoming Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use next month.
With every passing month, the topic of cannabis use in Irish society is becoming more prevalent in political discussion. While the grandstanding remains along with ignorant fuelled hesitation, the fact it is a prominent topic of debate proves we are eager to move forward as a society as misinformation has failed to prevent natural discourse on the future of cannabis in Ireland. In the last few years, we had to rely on data from across the pond to justify such reform. We can now look forward to justifying it from European data as Germany, Europe’s largest economy is set to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that, if passed, will serve as a benchmark for the decriminalisation of cannabis in Europe. The original draft outlined that cannabis would no longer be classed as a narcotic, and citizens over 18 would be allowed to carry up to 30 grams for personal use. Consumers would also be free to grow up to three plants at home, and licensed stores and pharmacies would be able to sell cannabis products.
However, German lawyers had pointed out that the draft legislation potentially violated EU and UN law leading to a revised bill that German Health Minister, Karl Lauterbach believes complies with European legislation. What revisions were made have yet to be specified, but Lauterbach said the plans received “very good feedback” from the European Commission. Should Germany make history, the argument for reform will only be strengthened in future debates, which is something we need to prepare for this year as we ourselves are edging closer to cannabis decriminalisation in Ireland. Bringing it closer to home, a study issued in December 2022 by the Oireachtas Justice Committee has advocated for the decriminalisation of cannabis, among other modifications to Ireland’s drug laws. The report, An Examination of the Present Approach to Sanctions for Possession of Certain Amounts of Drugs for Personal Use, acknowledges the ‘harms’ connected to the criminalisation of drugs and drug users; the 129-page document also recommends that government pursue a ‘health-led’ approach to the drug in both policy and practice.
The Committee heard that drug fatality rates in Ireland are three times the European average, and among the highest within the EU. Criminalisation, the study adds, is a waste of time and money. It states, “Submissions highlighted the use of time and resources that is spent on processing cases of possession for personal use through the criminal justice system, and it was argued that this money and the time used by Gardaí to detect these drugs could be used more effectively in other areas,”. “For example, when the UK reclassified cannabis in 2004 to a class C drug, this resulted in a 33 per cent drop in cannabis cases and saved over 199,000 police hours.” 
The Committee further advocated for an extension of the Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP), to guarantee that more persons suffering from chronic disease may obtain cannabis in cases when other medicines have failed to improve symptoms. Apart from the study, noteworthy revisions to Ireland’s drug regulations have taken place this year. In January, the Irish Independent reported that a new supervised injection clinic had been granted the ‘green light’ after an assessment by An Bord Pleanála. The facility — which is slated to open in Merchant’s Quay in Dublin city centre — is intended to cater to up to 100 individuals every day, the publication stated.
However, for recreational use, Tánaiste Micheál Martin fears legalising cannabis because he feels such a step may promote the perception that drug-taking is normal. In an interview with the Irish Examiner in New York, he noted that individuals experimenting with narcotics is troublesome, and they may not recognise they are “storing up problems for themselves”. He added he finds it hard to grasp the “habitual” usage of drugs by young people since there is a “fine line between having a good time and disaster”.
Mr Martin highlighted that there is a distinction between decriminalisation, which he is in support of, and “making anything legal”. A distinction that I’m sure he would struggle to define in clear-cut terms as doing so would make the harm reduction approach more viable as a solution to his worries. Speaking out of the other side of his mouth, the Tánaiste stated his stance on drugs is ‘very much on the preventative side’. He claimed medical staff have advised him that cannabis products are considerably more strong today and they feel it is a contributing element in schizophrenia, especially if individuals are using cannabis early in their teenage years.
This is all the more reason to regulate it as the black market isn’t interested in selling by potency. A legally regulated market would squash these concerns as appropriate professionals in the field would be able to advise on the strength and strain of cannabis when making a sale within a specialised dispensary. This scenario also limits the access younger generations have to the drug, cutting down on teen use considerably, leaving only the black market as a potential seller. A potential seller that would be in direct competition with the government and would see a substantial loss in sales in the wake of regulated cannabis.
“I’d be very worried if you legalise it. You create a kind of an idea that it’s fine,”. “But I don’t think we should criminalise people either; there’s a difference between decriminalisation, which I’m in favour of, and making everything legal.” “I’m open to the argument and that’s why I believe this Citizens’ Assembly will be intriguing and vital because we need to hear all views here.” – Micheál Martin
The Government recently announced the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use which will be tasked with examining and making recommendations on the legislative, policy, and operational changes the State could make to significantly reduce the harmful impacts of illicit drugs on individuals, families, communities, and wider society. The assembly will begin its work next month, under the supervision of former HSE head Paul Reid. Letters have been sent out to houses throughout the nation encouraging members of the public to participate.
Martin stated, ‘I know from medical professionals talking about it, they feel it’s a contributing reason to schizophrenia, especially if individuals participate in cannabis early on in their teenage years.’ It can’t be disputed the effects cannabis has on developing brains, which in itself is all the more reason to remove it from the very people who will have no qualms with selling the drug to teenagers. Two of Mr Martin’s party colleagues, Oireachtas Justice Committee Chairman James Lawless and Dublin Northwest TD Paul McAuliffe, recently encouraged the government to speed the process of decriminalisation that is now in place.
Hildegarde Naughton, the Government Chief Whip and Minister of State with responsibility for Public Health, Well Being and the National Drugs Strategy has acknowledged consuming cannabis in her 20s, saying there is a need for an “open and honest” debate in society about drug use. Ms Naughton introduced the Dáil resolution to create the next Citizens’ Assembly on drugs. She said an open and honest conversation should be had about drug use and “how then that feeds into policy, and that’s what I want as minister with responsibility for drugs policy”. She said it was important to hear the “lived experience of those who use drugs”.
The long-promised Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use will begin on April 14th where we will either make a major leap forward as a country to tackle the issues that surround drug addiction whilst destigmatising recreational use, or we may very well slink even further down the rabbit hole of misinformation. I don’t feel the current government will see any positives in this discussion until their seats are threatened to which they will resort to catering to potential voters they would’ve usually ignored. Given the lack of confidence the public currently has in the government, I do expect them to change their tune come election season. While cannabis use in Irish society will remain a contentious issue, I feel in the coming months, there will be a breakthrough in cannabis reform not only for mainland Europe but for Ireland as well, and by the end of the decade we will remember 2023 as the year the tide started to turn.