Barry is a Cork native who has been an advocate of cannabis for many years. In this conversation, he tells us about his letter-sending campaign which began on the 14th of July, as well as his experience of the Cork Canna Expo at Fitzgerald Park on August 8th, where he collected signatures for the letters to be sent to The Department of the Taoiseach.
It’s great to meet you Barry. Tell me a bit about your engagement in activism. I signed my first petition outside Cash’s on Patrick Street [AKA Brown Thomas], you know, 20-odd years ago. And I went to a couple of marches here and there over the years. But it was Covid that kind of got the fire under me. Sometimes you try to square away certain things in certain ways, you know what I mean? But there’s always something that holds you back. And I was always kind of thinking: “Well, if I ever get caught, I might do my activism then”, you know? Which is kind of.. it’s a cowardly way out like, and it sat with me a lot recently. At the Cork Canna Expo there was a patient speaking. I can’t remember who it was, ‘cause I was busy getting these ¹letters signed, so I was mad distracted by that, but I think it might’ve been John Tierney. I’m open to being corrected.
And one of the things he said that really kind of sat with me is that we can’t leave the patients fight these battles. People who are sick and who are also protesting and trying to get the law changed, and trying to put in all this work. When you think of ²Vera Twomey, getting out and walking to Dublin for her daughter. It was a great day though. Everyone panicked and ran like, there was no need for that at all! It was hilarious actually. I heard about the Gardaí coming in the van! I’m still not sure they knew what they were turning up to, you know what I mean? There had been talks early in the day that people had been stopped on the pedestrian bridge and searched. But when they rocked up, they said it was because it was in breach of Covid regulations. Not to mind the waft of clouds everywhere! And there was this P.A. speaker that they made a big hullabaloo about. Like, they could’ve thought it was some kind of rave going on, where people were rowdy and drunk or something. They rock up to a bunch of stoners in a park and they all leg it, you know? And start picking up the rubbish after themselves!
I heard there was a bit of a stampede. There was yeah. The way they rocked up, it was like something out of an ad for the Guards or something. A show of force. They made a big hullabaloo about this P.A. speaker, you know? “Who owns this? This is lost and found. This is this, that and the other.” And like five foot away, a cannabis plant stood there. And people were like: “He hasn’t seen the plant”. Was that a raffle prize? Somebody didn’t just bring a plant along, “for the craic”.
I heard somebody mention that it was, so I’m not sure if it was real or not. But they did say they’d give it away as a raffle prize, which would’ve been hilarious. Somebody walking through town with it. The Guards walking out with it was funny, and they were laughing away themselves like, you know? So they weren’t all serious? They were a bit serious I suppose, but all of a sudden everybody was gone. They told people to clear, people started clearing and it’s like… “Okay then, what do we do now? Nothing.”
So they were alright, you know what I mean? Most Cork Guards over the years are sound, city Guards a lot of the time. I know more people that have been left off with little bits and pieces than have been done for it. To my knowledge, the first time you get caught with a small amount they’ll let you off and the second time it’s at their discretion if they want to. Well, at the end of the day, it’s always at their discretion. I remember there was a Guard (who) had a thing up on Reddit before, where he was like: “Serving member, ask me anything”. People were asking everything from traffic violations, to this, to that, to the other. But most people were asking about cannabis. And his opinion was that if you’ve grown up in the city, or if you’ve gone to college before joining the Guards, you probably wouldn’t care much about it. But if you grew up in the country, maybe with stricter parents or something, and you went straight into Templemore [Garda training college], hearing this borderline propaganda some of the time, then that could be another story.
How secretive do you think cannabis enthusiasts are, do you reckon they’re scared of sharing their experiences openly? Some people, very much so, yeah. I’ve reached out to people here and there about different things and offered to help out, but unfortunately there’s often little that comes back. But I’ve met a few people over the last couple of months, during Covid or whatever. I went over to Support Don’t Punish when they were doing a little thing down on Grand Parade [on June 25th], and after that was the first ³Martin’s World one, down in the park. You know the Cork Canna Expo? It was before that, on July 11th. There’s a group called the Major Group for Cannabis Reform, who arrange protests [Major Smoke Up events]. I think Martin took inspiration from them and set up his own one. I went to the first one and just chilled out and I hoped to introduce myself and talk about ideas I had, wanting to help out. I’m happy to help people, but I don’t think I have the capacity to do something like that on my own, like Martin is doing.
I could do what Martin is doing if I had two or three people working for me! Fair play to him. He’s been fighting his cause a long time now. I’ve met Martin and I think he’s sound, and I appreciate what he’s doing in a big way, and… I think more people could do with his “indomitable spirit” in a way, you know what I mean? If you believe something is unjust, regardless of the consequences, you stand up for it. Now, it’s also unfortunate that he was kind of sent down this path in a way, by getting caught when he was seventeen. There’s many other seventeen year olds who never got caught, who went on to achieve great success. With a lot of people as well, I think that it’s something to hold them back. If you find something that you like, or that gives you a better quality of life if you’re using it medicinally, then why not? But, you also think to yourself: “Right, there’s certain things that maybe I shouldn’t chance, because if I do get caught, it’s all wasted effort”, because they can take all that away from you.
This blog is a good idea, it’s something I’ve thought of myself over the years. The idea of people telling their stories. Because there’s great things that can come from just listening to peoples experiences. We’re too quick to put our morals over other people. Don’t judge people without walking a day in their shoes. Something has to give. We just have to allow people the comfort to be able to speak, and I think that’s happening more and more. You wouldn’t realise the people that smoke really. I know people from all walks of life, all different kinds of back stories, people of all ages. People who know the benefits of these things should speak up for it and we have to speak for truth. Going back to the Expo. Were you aware of any attendees getting in trouble with the Gardaí? No. (The Gardaí) said it was in breach of Covid regulations. Roughly how many people showed up? I honestly thought there was about 300. But I’m really bad at calculating numbers, and I was getting letters signed and stuff.
Martin organised it with the Cork Cannabis Activist Network. There were some really nice people down there. Guys from The Funky Skunk were down there, they were really sound. I think it got sponsorship as well from some other businesses, like maybe Deep Roots and Get Up And Grow.
Did you have any interesting experiences at it? I’d met with people I wanted to network with and I said to these people, “Look, we can do a letter protest, that’s something.” Nobody got back to me anyway and I got impatient. It had been a month. People I’d met who had barely met each other, friends of friends. And people have busy lives, people are trying to hold down jobs and run businesses and all these other things that are more of a priority to them. So, basically the letter was just to get the ball rolling. I set a personal goal of a thousand for myself.
The last time I did it was for Irish as a European language, so I got close to a thousand signed that time and sent (them) off to Bertie Ahern [Taoiseach of Ireland from 1997-2008].
So, I had gotten on to a friend of mine. She has a Masters in English, so I thought: “Who better to ask?” And it was only a quickly thrown-together thing, it took us about an hour or two maybe. And I was going cold-calling door to door, asking for signatures. If people wanted to cross out a bit they could, some people added their own part. One guy wrote a whole essay across the front of his one, that began with: “Micheál, you’re a plonker.” But basically it looked at proposals that had been made over the years, and the most recent one from The Green Party. And people were giving out about some of the choices of words and whatever, but I think they kind of missed the point. It gets the message across.
The point wasn’t to focus on the letter, it was to just get people going. I encourage people to write their own letters. What has the ultimate impact is a personal, hand-written letter. Most people aren’t going to do that, but it would obviously support the cause. I got a thousand signatures, each one of those people gave me a euro for a stamp, that’s all I asked for. I covered the envelopes and the printing myself. There were some friends and others who threw in an extra couple of euro here and there. But it ended up costing about €200 there or there abouts, you know? I’d print them out, I’d put them in envelopes. I’d buy maybe fifty stamps at a time in the post office. And then I’d call to people. Every Saturday then I’d do it in town. And I did all the social distancing stuff, I’d say: “Are you cocooning or quarantining?”, and if they said: “No, you’re alright” then I’d give them the spiel. But I’d always keep distance, I had hand sanitiser with me. And nobody had a problem with that.
Within walking distance of my house, it’s a predominantly older area. In terms of acceptance of it, there was maybe a bit of a lull with people in their late 50s, early 60s. But above that, they were all for it. “I wish I had it for my arthritis, I wish I had it for this, my friend uses it for this.” I met one guy, I can’t remember was he 80 or 84. But he said he grew one plant, once a year, down the back, for his wife. And she used to smoke a pinner every second night and she’s on half the amount of painkillers. Now I know this is just an anecdotal story, but these are the kinds of stories I’m hearing from people. And the reception at the door was 80-90% positive reactions from people. There was one person I met who said, “I wouldn’t support it and I think the penalties should be harsher”. But that was it. In terms of stigma, there were some people who didn’t sign it, but wanted one sent on their behalf. Those people who were afraid of signing it were teachers and nurses, people working government jobs. They feel they have to protect that. Like, you’re basically fucking sending a letter to your boss, saying you support something illegal.
Some people would be exact about their details, put down their exact address, their exact name. Some people would just say: “Johnny, Douglas”, as an example.
Did you get a government response? Did any TD respond? I heard of one letter. One person got a response, that’s all I know of. I’m not really good with social media. I can’t stand it to be honest, it’s a fucking cesspit. Did you ask the letter signers to let you know if they got word back? Did any of them update you afterwards? One person got on to Martin, from Martin’s World. They’d gotten a response. “We’ve received your correspondence and it has been passed on to the Taoiseach.” Which is kind of cool! But next thing then, there was a thousand of them in the door, but that’s just what I sent. I got a thousand signatures and a thousand euro to post them. A euro for each stamp. I had the stamps with me, so I put them on the envelope, people could see that straight away. But sometimes people didn’t have the euro on them, so I’d just give them one and they’d send it off in their own time.
So, in total I’d given out about 2,300. And lots of those people said that they were going to copy them for their friends. And where I was getting my photocopying done, every time I went back to them, they were saying: “Oh, there was another person in got fifty of ‘em! There was another person in got twenty of ‘em!”. Even my landlord’s daughter got thirty signed. I called to one house and he was like, “I’ve signed one of those in work already!”
I called to another house: “I signed one of them out in the Southside!” So it did spread and people did take it on and start doing it themselves, you know? Did people ever take a bulk amount from you, or did they make their own copies of your letter template to give out? Well like I only tried to give one to people to try and save them, because it’s costing me money, you know? I don’t mind in a way, and I would like to continue it in a way, but it would take help and it would take finance. And I have been messing with different ideas to try and do that. I like the idea behind this blog and there is an important space for that and people appreciate that as well, especially younger generations now. They’ve a world of facts and information to take in, but they also have peoples experiences there on YouTube. And loads of people will just put up their own experiences of things. And I’ve listened to some of these peoples stories and you can take things from it if you’ve any empathy in you at all. You can take a lot from peoples experiences. Would you have been spending a lot of time per day going door to door? Yeah. It’d vary from day to day, but some days it was like a fucking job like. Some days I was wrecked after it, you know what I mean?
Were you working at that time? No, I’m not working because of Covid. But the response from people is great. Are people becoming more accepting of weed overall? The people afflicted with reefer madness can be very against it. I called to a tiny little cul-de-sac with five houses on it when I was out canvassing. So I called to the first door, it was a young mother. She signed it. I called to the next door, it was an auld fella. He signed it. I called to the next door, there was this fella who wasn’t too old, but he was old-minded. He was like: “What? No, I wouldn’t sign something.. nobody around here would sign something like that!” He was convinced that nobody anywhere around there would sign it. And people get into this thing, where they think that because they believe something, that that’s representative of a majority of people. It couldn’t be so far from the truth. That’s why I hate things like identity politics and stuff, because you can’t label any group as anything really. Individuals are too unique and complex to just paint over them with a wide brush. It’s like the man who was telling me on Twitter that all cannabis users smell like piss!
Do you reckon it’s been harder for consumers to find cannabis in Ireland in the last few months? Yeah, I hear that it was the worst ever by a long shot. Nothing compares. When I was out doing my letters, loads of people were like: “Do you know where I could get any?” Barry Laughs “You didn’t bring a nodge for us, did you? I’ll sign it if you give me a nodge!” There were houses I called to as well where people were in the midst of smoking. One morning I’d only been out for maybe an hour and I called to this one house. Two girls answered the door and burst out laughing and one was like: “I’m just after rolling two joints, do you want one of ‘em?” And I was like: “Fuck yeah, why not?” But they were chatting for ages, they were lovely. And then we ended up talking… and obviously when you have a smoke, you end up unravelling the mysteries of the universe and you go out the back garden, over a cup of coffee like. When I went out then I was just so baked. I couldn’t handle it, like. Well, I obviously could. But I didn’t feel confident about calling to more people after that, shall we say. I just said I’d leave it off and that was the end of that day. But there’s nothing wrong with that, because if you had somebody else make a drink for you, you could end up in the same situation.
What’s your perspective on how things are going with the legal status of cannabis in Ireland? How do you reckon the government are doing with that? They are not proactive at the moment. Micheál Martin spent a good bit of time hounding Simon Harris [Minister for Health, 2016-2020] about the Medical Cannabis Access Programme, and since it got in, it hasn’t had a word. Leo Varadkar [Tánaiste of Ireland] has admitted to using cannabis in the past. Stephen Donnelly [current Minister for Health] has admitted to using cannabis in the past. You can infer a lot of things from that that are not right. You’ve a lot of controversy lately with a Minister having to resign because he’d been caught drink driving years ago [Fianna Fáil TD and former Minister for Agriculture, Barry Cowen]. He’d have already paid the consequences. But he had to resign. And then you have the likes of ⁴Golf Gate recently. So, if we’re going to insist that Ministers or Commissioners resign for certain behaviour that’s illegal, why are we not expecting the same from Leo Varadkar and Stephen Donnelly?
Neither of them would be where they are today if they had gotten caught using cannabis. But people still get caught and have their whole lives turned upside-down. So there’s something not right with that. If you’re going to sit in your ivory tower and laugh about the time in college you smoked cannabis, as the Taoiseach of Ireland [Varadkar was Taoiseach, from 2017-2020], that’s disgraceful. There’s an awful lot of people out there who’ve got mad stories, who actually need it. People who use it medicinally are getting properly fucked. It’s a ridiculous situation that they legislate for something, but then they make people go to The Hague [in The Netherlands] to get their prescriptions filled. These are people on Ministerial licences who can’t go down their local chemist and get a prescription. They [the government] caved then during Covid, and they brought in couriers from there. The Department of Health paid for it and that cost a fortune.
But now they say there’s no more budget for it. But they’ll cover opiates for these people! I don’t understand the fear from them. One last question. Would you say you smoke recreationally, or as a therapeutic kind of thing? I reckon that if I was in a country where it was legal, that I could probably get it medicinally for some of the things it’s used for. I hate saying it in a way, but I’d be more along the therapeutic side of things. Thanks so much for your time Barry, its been a pleasure. Thanks, good luck!
* Correction: The Green Lens has been notified by an organiser of Cork Canna Expo of an inaccuracy in the above interview, as follows: The patient speaking at Cork Canna Expo, mentioned in the first answer, was an MS patient named Stephen Garland.
¹ Barry’s letter was also distributed digitally. It is addressed to the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.
Among other policies, it lists decriminalising possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use and
removal of prior and ongoing convictions for possession of cannabis:
² Vera Twomey walked from Cork to Dublin to campaign for her daughter, Ava,
to be granted access to medical cannabis: https://bit.ly/2V8UQIf
³ Martin’s World is an online Irish cannabis show:
⁴ Golf Gate involved 82 people, including prominent Irish political figures, attending a two-day golf
society event shortly after the Irish government had implemented new Covid-19 restrictions on large