Optimism Despite Delays: Ireland’s Journey Toward Cannabis Decriminalisation


The Irish Government has approved the establishment of an Oireachtas committee to examine the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations for the decriminalisation of drug use ‘as quickly as possible’.

It comes just two weeks after the Dáil, Ireland’s lower parliamentary house, voted to delay by nine months a bill that would legislate for the decriminalisation of small amounts of cannabis.

Despite seemingly widespread support for both the bill and the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, the government has been accused of ‘kicking the can down the road’ until the upcoming election, while paying the minimum ‘lip service to reform’.

However, there is a palpable sense of optimism that Ireland, historically one of the EU’s most conservative nations in regard to drug law, is now on the brink of meaningful and inevitable change.

Natalie O’Regan, legal researcher and drug policy advocate in Ireland, told Business of Cannabis: “If we’d had this conversation 18 months ago, the results would have been a lot different. We’re going to get decriminalisation; there’s no doubt about that. At this stage, the conversation is about what form of decriminalisation.”

What happened?

Late last month, People Before Profit’s TD Gino Kenny, a long-time advocate for cannabis reform in Ireland, sought to build on the momentum of the landmark Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use by introducing a bill that would decriminalise the possession of up to 7 grams of cannabis for personal use.

Mr Kenny told the house: “The criminalisation of the individual for possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use has been a failed policy… This bill seeks to bring Ireland in line with other nations and states who have taken a progressive approach to the way we view drug use.”

The debate represented the first time since 2014 that cannabis laws had been discussed in the Dáil, and other than ‘one or two die-hards, 99% of the political parties were in favour of the bill’.

This support was largely down to the Citizens’ Assembly and the role previous assemblies have played in Irish politics over the past few decades, managing to shift the public and political discourse on intensely contentious issues such as abortion and climate change.

“If it was debated a year ago before the assembly, I think most political parties would have been against it, but the Assembly recommendations had already come out… I don’t think any have really come out against any Citizens’ Assembly ever”, Ms O’Regan explained.

Furthermore, the proposed Misuse of Drugs (Cannabis Regulation) Bill 2022 was, according to president of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform Peter Reynolds, ‘very carefully drafted so it would be easy to go through’.

“It was short and amended the existing Act, and it was completely in line with what the Citizens’ Assembly said.”

However, rather than vote to pass the bill, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly got agreement for a nine-month ‘timed amendment’. This means that while the bill can still be debated, it cannot pass to the next stage until at least October, around the time of the upcoming general election.

The little justification that was given for the delay by the government suggested that it would allow it time to debate the 36 recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly in detail through a special Oireachtas committee, which are formed to scrutinise policy and advise the government.

What next?

This week, Drugs Minister Hildegarde Naughton brought a memo to cabinet to establish this special Oireachtas committee, predicting that the group would be up and running by ‘March or April’.

The committee will comprise 14 members, including both senators and TDs, and according to the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, it will be given seven months to produce a report, but does not have to take all this time to do so.

Ms O’Regan explained that the committee will be tasked with answering the open questions posed by the recommendations of the committee, and that with an election looming, Irish politicians from all sides are glad to wash their hands of this responsibility.

“Depending on when the committee finishes their deliberations, and when they have their final report, I do think you’ll see the majority of the parties going in full favour of what the committee says. I can’t see any of them going against it realistically.”

As Mr Reynolds points out, another Oireachtas committee, which looked specifically at the penalties for personal possession of drugs, was already set up and produced a report in 2022.

“It was a big inquiry that ran for a while, including witnesses from all sides of the debate. It came up with a very comprehensive proposal that basically said we should decriminalise drugs and personal possession, particularly cannabis. In fact, it went further and suggested that we legally regulate cannabis.

“Then we had the Citizens’ Assembly, which also came out and recommended decriminalisation. Now what is the government saying?

“They want another Oireachtas committee to look at the same issues all over again, and it wants to delay the whole thing by nine months, which coincidentally puts it right in the middle of Ireland’s next general elections.”

Despite suggesting the government’s delay would be ‘laughable’ if it didn’t have ‘many severe and damaging effects on people’, Mr Reynolds said he also believed we ‘would see some progress as a result of this’.

He added: “It’s just the way stuff works in Ireland; if they can delay it, they will.”


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