The Irish government has delayed on discussing a bill that would legalize cannabis possession for nine months.
A report submitted by the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use completed its review of Ireland’s current drug policies in October 2023, and released a final report on Jan. 25, which includes 36 recommendations for prioritizing marginalized groups and communities, focusing on prevention and recovery, and more.
On Jan. 24, 2024, one day prior to the release of the report, Taoiseach (TD) Leo Varadkar (who holds a position similar to that of a prime minister) attended a Dáil Éireann parliament hearing and joined legislators in discussing the path forward.
“The chairperson of the Citizens’ Assembly stated there is no time to waste. No time to waste, taoiseach. If it saves one life, literally one person, if that can save one life, then it’s worth changing course in relation to criminalizing people,” said Gino Kelly, a TD for the People Before Profit political party, said in the hearing on Jan. 24. “So my question is: will the government take the recommendations—and now [not only] take the recommendations in relation to policy? But the key thing in relation to that report was legislative change. We have [had] the misuse of drugs act since [the] 1970s, criminalizing people, sending people into the criminal justice system, sending people to the courts, jailing people…It doesn’t work, taoiseach.”
Kelly continued that the country’s prohibition has “stigmatized, marginalized and criminalized not only individuals, but communities across the country.” He added that if the government decided to accept the commission’s report, that “we can change the course, and we can actually save lives and take people out of the criminal justice system.”
Varadkar responded, stating that decriminalization should come with other policies as well, and that multiple committees should help manage cannabis reform. “We shouldn’t just try to copy models in other countries,” he added.
On Jan. 30, Varadkar proposed to delay the cannabis bill vote by nine months, which would halt progress until at least October. He also called for the creation of a special committee. “One of the things the special committee will have to tease out is what does decriminalization really mean in a legal context—under an Irish context?” said Varadkar. “Does that mean that’s not an offense at all? Doesn’t [that] mean that it’s not an indictable offense? Does [it] mean that it’s an offense without a penalty? Is there something like penalty points? Or does it actually mean that, up to a certain amount of each particular substance, that would not be illegal?”
“In my view, drug use and misuse by individuals should be seen primarily as a public health issue and not a criminal justice matter,” Varadkar continued. “I certainly think that shaming people and blaming people and criminalizing people isn’t an effective policy.”
Other legislators in support of ending prohibition and moving Ireland forward in drug reform are disappointed in the delay. “The government has announced they will try to delay our Bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis by nine months,” said TD Paul Murphy on X. “That is simply an attempt to kick the can down the road. They talk about a health led approach to drugs. Now it’s time to walk the walk.
On Jan. 31, the government approved the nine-month delay. “Passing this bill today would have allowed it to go to the committee stage where we could have had this conversation and actually started taking meaningful first steps towards realizing the recommendations of the citizens assembly,” Kelly said on X. “Instead the government chose to do nothing.”
The bill was introduced in November 2022 by Kenny, Murphy, Mick Barry, Brid Smith, and Richard Boyd Barret. On an illustrated line of progress on the Ireland bill page, the Misuse of Drugs (Cannabis Regulation) Bill 2022 is only on step 2 of 11. Next it must be discussed by legislators to reach the Committee Stage, Report Stage, and Final Stage in Dáil Éireann parliament, which must also be discussed in the upper house, called the Seanad Éireann, as well.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use is made up of 100 people in total—99 general public representatives and one independent chairperson—who are selected at random. In 2023, the assembly spent five previous meetings listening to both experts and first-hand accounts from people suffering from addiction. In October 2023, the assembly voted on recommendations to send to legislators—39 chose to vote for approaching drug policy from a public health standpoint, while 38 voted to implement legalization and regulation of cannabis. Had the latter received one more vote, the assembly would have instead recommended legalization. “This indicates an appetite to completely overhaul the State’s cannabis policy, including full legislative decriminalization [sic], regulatory implementation around sale and supply alongside the repeal of prior criminal convictions for cannabis use,” the assembly announced in a statement at the time.
Medical cannabis has been legal in Ireland since June 2019, but it took years for the country to open its first medical cannabis clinic. It finally happened in November 2023, and the clinic now serves both patients admitted to the Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme, as well as others. Currently, only three conditions qualify for medical cannabis: spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and severe treatment-resistant epilepsy.