Calls for a Citizens Assembly to look at legalising cannabis use

In the final day of our series on the planned Citizens Assembly on drugs, Ann Murphy examines the international experience
Calls for a Citizens Assembly to look at legalising cannabis use

The Citizens Assembly (CA) on drugs should consider legalising cannabis, according to an advocate for cannabis legalisation. Picture: Getty

THE Citizens Assembly (CA) on drugs should consider legalising cannabis, according to an advocate for cannabis legalisation.

Corkman Graham de Barra says that any CA should include the topic of safely regulating drugs such as cannabis, as occurred earlier this year when a CA was held in Scotland.

The Scottish assembly supported decriminalising some drugs - including cannabis - and taxing them to help pay for public services.

Its members believed such a move could make Scotland safer for people with addiction, reduce drug deaths, and “move the power away from criminals like drug dealers”.

A report issued by the CA identified the decriminalisation of drugs as having a positive effect on Scottish finances, with the members opining that it would result in savings in the National Health Service, the Prison Service and the Police Service as the country would be safer without drug crime.

Mr de Barra said: "Broadly, the CA should include the topic of safely regulating drugs such as cannabis. Scotland held a CA earlier in the year and covered regulation of cannabis. We already have Dáil committees including one on decriminalisation and drug testing at festivals. They already recommended a form of decriminalisation being introduced this year which precludes all personal possession charges from the criminal justice system on first offence."

He continued: "If we only use the CA to discuss decriminalisation, then we are not looking beyond prohibition which is the trend among other democracies including the EU, Canada, Uruguay, New Zealand and others."

Graham de Barra of the Irish chapter of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Graham de Barra of the Irish chapter of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy

He also said that after the Covid-19 pandemic, there will need to be a total redesign of how socialising is done, whether in pubs, festivals or other places "where people use drugs".

He said there is a lack of quality assurance, testing and safe consumption spaces in such venues for socialising.

He continued: "I would like to see an expansion of decriminalisation to include reform of spent convictions; front-of-house drug testing at festivals; and regulation of 'soft' drugs such as cannabis."

The executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, said the trust would like to see a CA on the broader issue of crime and punishment in Ireland.

She explained: "All policy should be guided by the evidence of what actually works. Taking a public health rather than criminal justice approach to substance misuse is proven to be more effective. You cannot punish people into good health."

Coming to the issue from a prison perspective, she continued: "It is reported that 70% of the prison population have addiction issues, with that figure rising to 85% for the female prison population. This is both an ineffective use of prison resources, and can be further damaging for the individual and communities. There has to be a better way to respond."

She added: "The IPRT believes that addiction should primarily be viewed as a health problem, and we support measures designed to divert people with addictions away from the criminal justice system to receive appropriate treatment. Alternatives to imprisonment involving access to treatment, where needed, should be the default for people with addiction issues who are convicted of less serious offences."

Ms Ní Chinnéide said that Ireland needs to have a review of responses which include the integrated community service model which allows one-third of community service hours to be spent on accessing counselling/addition treatment.

And she added that access to treatment in prison - where prison is the only appropriate response - must go beyond equivalence of care in the community.

She accepted that there has been a shift in Irish society towards approaching the drugs issue from a public health perspective.

But she said: "This same approach does not appear to have carried into Irish prisons yet. There is a lack of access to addiction counsellors and a low number of treatment beds. Additionally, harm reduction programmes (including needle exchanges), which have been shown to be successful in the community, are still not accessible in prisons."

She continued: "The IPRT conducted an IPSOS/MRBI poll in 2007 which found that over 80% of people agree or strongly agree that offenders with a drug addiction should receive treatment in drug recovery programmes instead of being sent to prison."

She echoed a view which is reflected in the response of the Scottish CA, by saying: "Just to note on proposals on decriminalisation for personal possession of certain drugs: this would have little impact on prison numbers, as crimes associated with severe addictions are often driven by economic factors, for example, theft or property offences."

The CityWide national network of community activists and organisations involved in responding to Ireland's drugs has welcomed many elements of the Programme for Government relating to drugs.

The network praised the proposal "to build on recent initiatives at junior and senior cycle and support secondary schools in introducing drug and alcohol awareness programmes needs to ensure that there are structured links between schools and local youth/drug services."

This is echoed by Corkwoman Nicole Ryan, who has been involved in raising drug awareness in schools in recent years, after the death of her brother Alex after taking the synthetic drug N-Bomb at a party in January 2016.

She set up a drug awareness programme aimed at educating young people about the dangers of drugs, called Alex's Adventure, in his memory.

She believes education around drugs is the most important facet to be considered by a CA, to help the next generation understand the dangers of substance use.

Alex and Nicole Ryan
Alex and Nicole Ryan

From the end of this month, she is doing an internet-based free workshop for parents of children from as young as pre-school to third level.

She explained: "The workshop is about helping parents to facilitate the conversation from a young age."

She said that young children can be taught early about the dangers of drugs, simply from explaining about how medicines such as Calpol can only be given by a parent and only to be used if necessary.

And she said that there are lots of other opportunities which present themselves to parents as opportunities to teach their children about drugs.

She elaborated: "Anything you see on TV or hear on the radio about drugs is a teachable moment. You can start a conversation then which will help them feel less uncomfortable."

She added that the key to ensuring children and young people do not go to the internet for information about drugs is for parents to keep the conversation going and earn the trust of their children.

And she said: "The sooner parents start, the more of a bond that will be built up between the parents and their children and they will be less likely to go to the internet for information."

She continued: "The onus is on parents, teachers and the community to promote a healthy conversation."

She also stressed that the focus of the CA should not just be on habitual users.

She explained: "Recreational users very often are the ones who die.

They are the ones who are doing it once in a while."

She described her brother as a recreational user, adding: "He did take the drug, and he did die."

* Details on how to access the workshop for parents is available on the Alex's Adventure Facebook page.

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