A Citizens Assembly on drugs is included in the most recent Programme for Government. In the first part of a three-day series on the proposal, Ann Murphy hears what needs to be examined in the assembly.
THE government will be pressed for a date for a Citizens Assembly on drugs when it returns after the Dáil’s summer recess.
Recently-appointed Sinn Féin spokesman on Addiction, Wellness and Recovery, Thomas Gould, says a date for the assembly is currently the most important point about the proposal.
The plan for such an assembly was included in the recently published programmes for government by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
Deputy Gould said: “For me, the big issue is that we are sure when it will take place and that it is not put on the long finger. Secondly, I also think that membership of the assembly needs to include representatives from communities affected by drugs. It is vital that people who are directly affected by the issue are represented adequately.”
Deputy Gould added that the drugs issue is a “very broad-ranging subject, and there will be different strands which will have to be examined.”
According to the programme for government, there will be a focus on dual diagnosis. The document outlines: “Recognising the link between drugs and mental health, we will ensure that a representative of the National Oversight Committee for Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery is included in the implementation and monitoring arrangements for Sharing the Vision – a Mental Health Policy for Everyone, a new national mental health policy.”
Deputy Gould is adamant that the link between addiction and mental health issues must be examined.
He said: “For me, dual diagnosis is something that will certainly have to be looked at. The whole issue of addiction, wellbeing and recovery is very important. I feel that as a country, we have lagged behind on the drugs issue.”
He intends meeting groups and organisations throughout August to get a feeling for what the public wants in relation to the drugs issue.
And he plans to raise the issue when the Dáil returns, especially in relation to the timing for the planned Citizens Assembly.
He also believes that addiction to alcohol needs to be included in the examination of the drugs situation.
He explained: “There are huge issues with alcohol — it is the single biggest drug used in this country.”
Public health specialist, Dr Joe Barry of Trinity College, agrees.
He said: “Alcohol is classed as a drug. For a complete picture of the drugs issue, I think there is a case for having alcohol included in the planned Citizens Assembly. The National Drugs Strategy includes alcohol. Alcohol and drugs are all part of the same mix.”
Dr Barry also believes a number of other key areas need to be examined, including economics and education.
He explained: “The whole big issue of poverty needs to be examined. For any condition, whether it be Covid-19 or mental health, poverty is a big thing. There should be a focus on the economics around drug use.”
Marketing of alcohol should also be included, according to Dr Barry, especially in the area of sports sponsorship and online marketing. He says the reach of social media means that alcohol advertised through these channels is hitting a younger generation in ways that traditional advertising does not.
Late last year, some elements of the Public Health Alcohol Bill came into effect, including a ban on alcohol advertising on public transport, at stations and at stops. It was also banned at under 18 movies in cinemas, while there can be no alcohol promotion on children’s clothing, or within 200 metres of schools, creches or playgrounds.
Minimum unit pricing is another area that needs to be addressed if the Citizens Assembly will include alcohol in its probe, Dr Barry said.
With many pubs still closed due to Covid-19, Dr Barry pointed out: “The current supply situation is a problem in relation to house parties at the moment. We have an over-supply of alcohol — you can get alcohol almost anywhere.”
He is adamant that minimum unit pricing would help address the issue of alcohol consumption, as it would essentially weed out the sale of extremely cheap alcohol.
Minimum unit pricing was introduced in Scotland over a year ago, in a bid to help cut alcohol-related deaths.
According to Alcohol Action Ireland, the high level of alcohol consumption in Ireland results in 1,000 deaths per year.
Dr Barry believes that it is time to look at expanding the number of coroners in Ireland to help give a clearer and more up-to-date picture of the drug-related deaths in Ireland.
He said: “We have had a situation where we have had a lot of people dying from a lot of different causes. In Dublin, there is a two-year wait for a death to come to inquest.”
He said there are also long waits in Cork and many other parts of the country.
He continued: “We should look at the average length of waiting time for a coroners court as it is causing difficulties for trying to get an accurate picture. Cases are very delayed and it is hard to investigate the present situation (concerning drug and alcohol related deaths) because the inquests take so long to be heard.”
Currently, there are three coroners in Cork city and county, as well as three deputy coroners. There are 40 across the country, while there is a total of 36 deputies.
Last month, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, brought forward the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020.
The aim of the bill was to address issues arising in the courts and Coroners Courts as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, it does not directly address the need which Dr Barry says is there for more coroners in Ireland to speed up the hearing of inquests in general, even prior to the pandemic.
There has been a backlog created by the high number of people who have died as a result of Covid-19, currently standing at almost 1,800 people. And the hearing of inquests into deaths which occurred prior to the pandemic has also been affected by the lockdown, with many having been postponed.
Part 2 of the Bill focused on amendments to the Coroners Act 1962, including the assignment and appointment of temporary coroners in “exceptional circumstances”, as well as arrangements for coroners’ district outside of the Dublin city coroner’s district. Specifically, the legislation states: “The Minister may, in exceptional circumstances arising due to the number or nature of deaths resulting from a pandemic, catastrophic event or other leading to mass fatalities, upon a request in that behalf from a coroner for a coroner’s district — (a) subject to subsection (2), assign a person who stands appointed as a coroner or coroner deputy for another district, or (b) subject to subsections (3) and (6), appoint a person (including a person who previously stood as a coroner or deputy coroner for any coroner’s district) who has not attained the age of 75 years at the time of the appointment and is qualified for such appointment under section 14 to act temporarily as a coroner (in this section referred to as a ‘temporary coroner’ for the first-named coroner’s district if the minister is satisfied or appointment is necessary for the purpose of increasing the number and progress of inquiries under this act into deaths in that district.”