Flawed Framing in the #CADrugsUse Ballot

Help Not Harm
8 min readOct 21, 2023

Reflections on the final weekend of the Citizen’s Assembly on Drugs, by Graham de Barra

Ecclesia, the principal assembly of ancient Greece during its Golden Age

The Citizen’s Assembly on Drug Use has sparked a heated debate following a ballot vote on the final weekend. The framing of this ballot has raised serious concerns among citizens who recognize the importance of comprehensive drug regulation and health-led approaches.

It’s essential to highlight that regulating drugs should not be seen as mutually exclusive from implementing a comprehensive health-focused strategy. The dichotomy of “one or the other” oversimplifies a complex issue.

Unfortunately this is exactly how the debate was framed.

Proportional Representative-Single Transferrable Voting within the Irish Electorate System

The intricacies of voting systems came to the forefront during deliberations, sparking discussions about the suitability of single transferable voting when applied to variable entities. It’s important to note that Public Representative-Single Transferable Voting (PR-STV) is well suited to categorical entities and hailed among democratic electorates, ask any first year Politics student across the country. Proportionality is approximated by use of a quota so that each candidate is elected with the same number of votes. This equality produces fairness — a party taking twice the votes than another party will take twice the seats compared to that other party. Under PR-STV, multiple winners are selected for a constituency (a multi-member district)

There is no requirement for proportionality with the simple question— Which of the following models do you support?

  1. Status Quo
  2. Health-diversion
  3. Comprehensive Health-led
  4. Tolerance
  5. Legalisation and regulation

One of the most striking outcomes of the ballot was the unexpected result for the option in support of the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. Despite receiving 36 first preference votes, activists watching live on their screens all around the world wouldn’t be blamed for celebrating early, however the rug was pulled from under them as it ultimately lost in the ballot in what looked like shuckin’ and jivin’ by the Chairperson, Paul Reid. This outcome was due to deliberate manipulation of the choices provided to 87 voters (of which 1 vote was spoiled).

The choice between “legalisation/regulation,” which is relatively specific, and “comprehensive health-led” a more general term, exemplifies this challenge. The inherent ambiguity in the latter option can make it less amenable to ranking within the single transferable vote system. These nuances emphasize the importance of crafting well-defined, intelligible voting options, especially when the choices are central to shaping complex policies like drug regulation.

“Health-led” was split into two separate options, effectively dividing the vote for a more holistic approach to drug policy. Additionally, the presence of the “Status Quo” option in the debate further complicated the decision-making process, raising questions about the integrity of the ballot. The option of retaining the status quo shadowed the conservativism that reflected throughout the Assembly process with the selection of anti-reform speakers. One can only imagine the reaction from the previous Citizen’s Assembly on LGBTQ+ right to equality if “Status Quo” was to be given serious consideration and rightly so.

Breakdown of the Vote

36 votes on the first count is 42% of the overall score. In contrast “comprehensive health-led” secured 23 first preference votes, constituting 27% of the total. However, it’s fascinating to observe how the dynamics changed as the vote progressed to “proportion” the vote.

“Comprehensive health-led” saw an increase in support, rising to 39 votes with transfers, while “legalization/regulation” remained at 38 votes.

Drawing a parallel to the realm of general elections, the outcome of the ballot takes on a thought-provoking experiment. Imagine a scenario where 42% of the electorate votes for Party 1, while their closest competitor, Party 2, secures 27% of the vote and Party 2 wins. In the context of general elections, it’s virtually unheard of for a 15% gap to be overcome in the final count.

Such a scenario would prompt serious scrutiny and questioning. The only plausible explanation for this unusual outcome in the #CADrugsUse ballot lies in the use of inconsistent and ambiguous categories. The need for clarity and well-defined choices in such decisions becomes glaringly evident when stark discrepancies like these emerge.

The significance of these votes becomes even more pronounced in such tight contests, where a mere one-vote difference determined the fate of policy direction for decades to come. The exclusion of two members in a vote with such critical implications underscores the importance of scrutinizing the procedural aspects of the decision-making process to safeguard the integrity of democratic practices. The explanation provided was that they had to depart from the Assembly early because of other obligations. This raises the pertinent question of why members were permitted to engage in the Assembly if they were unable to fulfil their commitment to its entirety. Furthermore the Assembly began with 99 members and the final weekend had noticeable numbers of people missing that only added to the fire of conspiracy among social media as rumours flied through the airwaves as to whether people were removed due to differing of opinions. So far this remains speculative and there may well be genuine reasons for the low voter turnout today.

Nevertheless citizens were right not to take these issues lightly. One man stood up demanding a recount while several more raised issue with the definition of the available options. Concerns were raised regarding the vagueness and conflicting terminology used in describing the various models. These descriptions often overlapped and muddied the waters, making it difficult for voters to make an informed choice.

In the midst of this contentious debate, the dissatisfaction of citizens with the voting process was palpable. The atmosphere in the assembly room reflected the confusion and frustration that many felt. To make matters more evident, a show of hands was conducted to gauge the understanding of the voting process among those present. It was alarming to see that only a few people raised their hands to indicate that they fully comprehended the complexities of the ballot.

This stark display of confusion and frustration highlights the pressing need for greater transparency and clarity in the democratic processes that shape the policies affecting our communities. To who’s benefit is criminalising people who use drugs anyway? It also underlines the importance of fostering a more informed and engaged citizenry to ensure fair and just decision-making.

One instance that demonstrates the need for clarity and transparency in this process was one lady’s reasonable request for clarification about the potential criminal implications of the different options prior to the vote. Unfortunately, her inquiry was dismissed, further fuelling suspicions about the fairness of the ballot. As it turns out the model selected does not decriminalise drug possession, contrary to comparisons made with Portugal where a 10-day supply is not a criminal offence.

Misleading Terminology

The manipulation of choices, the presence of vague terminology, and the lack of clarity in the #CADrugsUse ballot have left many questioning the validity of the outcome. It’s crucial to remember that drug policy is a complex issue that requires careful consideration. To truly address the diverse needs of society, a comprehensive approach that doesn’t oversimplify the options is essential. What was meant to be a momentous day for Assembly members and the country, regardless of the recommendations decided, was rushed by the organisers who fluttered through the morning session and were too quick to take a vote without considering carefully the different models which were not explained.

Other Business

It’s also worth considering broader topics, such as the limitations of non-custodial sentencing options like community service, which was the model that won out. While this can offer valuable alternatives to incarceration, they may not always adequately address the root causes of criminal behaviour or ensure the rehabilitation of offenders. These discussions highlight the importance of critically evaluating and improving such sentencing practices to strike the right balance between justice and rehabilitation. The protection of human rights was not mentioned anywhere which is relevant here since the use of forced labour has been compared in the US to legalised slavery.

In the context of comprehensive drug policies, it’s essential to acknowledge that GP surgeries are not adequately resourced to serve as drug consumption rooms for substances like methadone or any other drugs. These medical facilities have their own critical responsibilities, and overburdening them with the supervision of drug consumption can impede their primary mission of providing general healthcare services. This limitation underscores the need for dedicated drug consumption rooms and harm reduction strategies within the broader drug policy framework.

Where do we go from here?

Amidst the ongoing debate over drug policy and voting processes, it’s crucial to remember that for individuals affected by these policies, the impact on their daily lives can be profound. Feeling like a criminal all the time is not easy on mental health. Those who may be affected by the criminalization of drug use often endure a relentless emotional burden, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Recognizing the mental health toll of these policies underscores the urgency of adopting more compassionate and harm-reduction-oriented approaches that prioritise the well-being of individuals. If you are one of these people I would strongly encourage you to join any of the activist groups such as Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Cannabis Activist Alliance.

A petition has been circulating on social media urging Dail Eireann to prioritize the Private Members’ bill submitted by TD Gino Kenny to decriminalise cannabis possession. However, it’s important to recognise the limitations of this process. Private Members’ bills are subject to a lottery system, and it can take years for a bill to make its way to a Dail vote. Even when it eventually reaches this stage, the bill itself only focuses on decriminalising the possession of a mere 7 grams of cannabis, falling significantly short of representing the broader will and needs of cannabis users. As such, while this initiative is a step in the right direction, it underscores the necessity for comprehensive and timely reforms that align with the views and requirements of the cannabis community in the immediate present. To accomplish this it is essential for politicians to listen to the community.

While political advocacy is undoubtedly a critical avenue for bringing about change, it’s essential to remember that it’s just one facet of a multifaceted approach. To make real progress in drug policy reform, people must organise efficiently and effectively. With upcoming elections on the horizon, there’s a prime opportunity to elevate drug policy to the forefront of the political agenda, ensuring that it becomes a key election issue. However, it’s equally crucial to remind ourselves that genuine change often originates from the grassroots, from the community ground up and it takes generations to achieve legitimate reform. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for change to materialise solely through theatrical political channels. This requires collective action, education, and advocacy on all levels, from individuals and communities to the highest echelons of government, to bring about the transformations we seek in our drug policies.

Results from the final votes will be carried into the morning as the Assembly will meet for a final time. Thank you to each member of the Assembly for your commitments throughout this process up to now and having the chops to challenge the status quo in a country that continuously seeks to conserve it.



Help Not Harm

Help Not Harm is a campaign supporting a shift of drugs from criminal justice to public health to improve access to harm reduction, education and treatment.