The Irish Times view on the Citizens’ Assembly report on drugs use: call for a change of approach

The core message is that drugs use and misuse should be seen as public health issue rather than a criminal justice one

An assembly of citizens has once again shown that public opinion – in so far as a 100-member assembly can be considered representative of it – can be ahead of policy makers on a touchstone issue.

By calling for the decriminalisation of the possession of illicit drugs for personal use, the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use has found itself at odds with the views of the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and medical experts. Representatives of all three expressed reservations about limited decriminalisation as a policy in their presentations to the assembly, which sat for 250 hours between last April and October and received 800 public submissions.

Chaired by the former chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, the assembly has now produced its final report that formalises 36 recommendations it published last October. The report will be considered by the Oireachtas.

The limited decriminalisation called for by the assembly is not a panacea for the problem of drug misuse . The assembly’s report does not claim otherwise, with recommendations about drugs policy, agencies and providing resources to tackle one of Ireland’s greatest social problems.

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It would be a mistake for the debate on the recommendations of the assembly to get hung up on the decriminalisation issue, which may not gain early traction given the opposition of key agencies and public servants. Instead, it should focus on the real takeaway from the report, which is a clear indication of the direction of travel in which the members would like to see policy heading.

The core message is that drugs use, and misuse should be seen as public health issue rather than a criminal justice one. To a certain extent they are pushing at an open door. The Taoiseach signalled as much in comments made in the Dáil ahead of the report’s publication, when he pointed out that the current approach was not working.

If a pivot to seeing drug misuse as a public health problem becomes the guiding principle of policymakers in this area, important and progressive policy changes can follow.