Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell | Belfast, Northern Ireland | 12.11.2020

Doctor Órfhlaith Campbell is a Belfast-based historian, wellbeing practitioner and drug reform activist with a PhD on the The Irish Temperance League of 1858-1914, which campaigned during a time of major political upheaval across the island. She has a background in community work, having worked in a range of positions in Vancouver, Canada, supporting adults with mental health and substance use issues. Since returning home in January 2020, Órfhlaith has worked with young people in inner city Belfast who are struggling with the same issues. / Twitter: @DrOrfh

When did you first take an interest in weed and in drug reform? Well, those are two very different questions. Órfhlaith laughs I first took interest in weed at 15 and smoked it on and off until I went to Canada. And then obviously it was very different over there. But my interest in drug reform would’ve been when I started doing my PhD and I started looking at the prohibition of alcohol. And alcohol is a drug. But, I probably at the time didn’t even realise the significance of what I was studying and it wasn’t until I went to Canada and lived there, through the debates on prohibition and the legalisation of cannabis at the time when I really started to understand the significance of what I had studied and how that then played into contemporary conversations on drug reform. And it wasn’t just that I had studied the fact that there were some people in Ireland back in the 1800s that decided we should all not drink here. So yeah, that’s when I would’ve got involved.

How has your community work over the years informed your opinions on drug and rehabilitation policies across the British Isles? Have your experiences changed your views on drugs and the people who use them? So for me, the question is probably “What drugs does that person use?” I think we have to change our definition of drugs. We have to stop looking at it from that war on drugs-focused lens, where alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals are good, and cannabis, cocaine, heroin are bad. They’re all drugs, and they all do a range of things and can be used for a range of different reasons. So, when you ask that question then, “What drugs does that person use?”, then your next question always has to be “Why?” and then once you’ve asked “Why?”, then you can start to understand and see the impact that the system has had on people for centuries now, at this point. For me, I obviously enjoy academic stuff, but if I don’t understand what’s happening on the ground or am not listening to a more person-centered approach, I have to put the two together. So in my everyday work you can actually see the pain that some people are living in and how that’s driving substance use. And you can see on a daily basis that substance use issues is a symptom of a much deeper cause.

Considering your historical research on Irish temperance, how do you feel about Ireland’s relationship with alcohol today? Do you think it’s changed much overall since that time? I think the thing about the temperance movement is they weren’t all wrong, although we’ve got to a place where the prohibition movement is now.. the more extreme elements of that took over. When temperance and prohibition started coming about in the mid 1800s, something needed to be done about alcohol. And I would say that something probably does need to be done about it again. Temperance reformers probably weren’t wrong that the drink business would step in and start using marketing campaigns. And that is taking advantage of what I think is cultural experience here where we enjoy the craic, we enjoy going wild. 

But because we’re told this substance is okay and this is the only one we can use, it’s overused. Alcohol and drugs are taken as two separate things. So, if you took the statistics for the medical and mental health issues that come from alcohol and put them in the drug one, you would see that alcohol is the most dangerous drug. But yet because the American government needed tax after the Great Depression and legalised it, that put the nail in the coffin for alcohol prohibition. Harry Anslinger, who was the head of The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had been the head of the Department of Prohibition directly before that, so you know… He was experienced in that area! Absolutely. He doesn’t even change a thing, he was literally just like: “Right okay, so we were doing all that with alcohol. We’ll just scrape alcohol out and then we’ll put cannabis in here for now and we’ll just add all these other drugs as we go”.

1Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was a Limerick-born physician who is said to have introduced the therapeutic use of cannabis to Western medicine and popularised it in England in the 1830s and ‘40s. Are there any other noteworthy historical advocates of cannabis from Ireland and the UK who you’ve become aware of? I liked that question, it did make me think of a couple. So, obviously there’s Doctor George Sigerson. I never know if I’m saying his name right. Sigerson – that’s an interesting name for sure! He was a Doctor, a poet, a playwright, a political activist. In 1866, he writes a pamphlet called 2Cannabiculture in Ireland; its Profit & Possibility. A cannabis activist today could take this and reprint it, and he was literally screaming it back in 1866! It mentioned the benefits of it for agriculture and what hemp could do here, it’s crazy… That’s incredible. So he was a fantastic activist.

(W.B) 3Yeats as well, has written of his experiences with the plant. He was said to have been introduced to it in France in 1890. But my favourite one was, not long after O’Shaughnessy started talking about the medical benefits of cannabis, I came across an 1845 Doctor. I think it might have been in The Belfast Newsletter. And there’s this young woman he’s helping and she’s suffering from menstrual cramps. Yeah. And he prescribes some THC drugs to her, but he over-prescribes it. Clearly he gives her too much and she has a whitey. Richard laughs And when you’re having a whitey, you know what’s happening. Everybody around her was like: “Oh my God, is she possessed? She’s convulsing!” And reading it back now, you’re like: “Oh my God, she’s just whitey-ing! I get what’s happening!” If that was in 1845 and they were even thinking of “How could this be used for women, for their monthly cycle?”, that was so pioneering back then! So when you asked that question, he came into my head straight away. ‘Cause we’re only starting to have those conversations now. With all the medical benefits, including women’s health, he’s probably my favourite. That’s amazing.

Have you discovered any historical information about drug use and prohibition in Ireland and the UK that has especially stood out to you? Yeah. What really stood out to me during my PhD was… I think when you think of temperance and the anti-drink movement in Ireland, you think of the pioneers and taking your pledge at confirmation and all that sort of thing. Yeah. But really, it was a whole range of experiences on this island that really shaped the temperance and prohibition movements across the British Isles. So we’re literally pioneers in what we came to prohibition movement now although that’s not what they intended at the time because the extreme elements won out. And everyday it continues to shock me that there are examples of best practice that we are choosing to ignore. 

The ITL, which was The Irish Temperance League, was the organisation I studied in my PhD. They still work in Belfast today. Yeah. The organisation still functions. And part of that is because they have a great board of activists that are still passionate about helping people in recovery. But they had their legislative prohibition section and they had this other section that was called moral suasion. And that was to persuade people to give up drink. It’s an odd little term, but that department of the movement then had two sections to it. One was their business section and they had fancy soirées and they were trying to bring in all the money from the middle and upper classes. But they have an outreach section as well. It’s basically this section that’s focusing on their reasons for demand. So it focuses on prevention, it focuses on recovery and it focuses on alternative recreation. That’s where we get cafés from.

So you didn’t just have to go to a pub where there was alcohol being served. You could go to the café and just have a coffee with your friends. It’s also where Thomas Cook comes from! He used to send people away on drink-free holidays so you could have a great time with your family and you didn’t have to go to the pub or whatever… Oh, I didn’t know that. Yeah, isn’t that crazy? Yeah. Wasn’t it this year that that company went bust? Mm-hmm. So when things like that happen, my little temperance brain’s going: “Nobody else understands… Remember where we came from!” Richard laughs That’s why he was set up, so… when you think of it that way, it was about giving the working class alternative recreations. So that was perfect, but now we just have this system where it says, “Focus on taking away supply”. We don’t even concern ourselves with the reasons for demand anymore, we’ve completely cut that out of the equation. And that’s the problem, ‘cause you’re not listening. When American prohibition failed in 1929, that’s the end of the movement. It’s a century old at that stage. So we have this whole century’s worth of things there that worked and things there that didn’t work and things there that we shouldn’t do. So since this is a working class issue, I think we need to reclaim our right to own our recreational and medical freedoms and have a safe and clean supply of drugs that there is a demand for and that people want to have.

It’s here. Why are we making a black market and then punishing people for things that have been sold? 4Theresa May’s husband has massive shares in GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK. It blows my mind! So you’re selling weed into Cali and then it’s coming back here and then you’re arresting people and putting them in prison for maybe fourteen years… And the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of cannabis as well, apparently. Yeah! The hypocrisy is absolutely mind-blowing. When you understand the roots of where this came from and you see that those extreme elements didn’t have to win out, there were other alternatives to what we have now ended up with, you can’t accept the system. Sorry, that was a bit of a rant! No it was brilliant though, I love rants. Keep going with those. Órfhlaith laughs

How strong is cannabis and drug reform activism in Northern Ireland at the moment, in your opinion? It’s pretty good at the minute, there’s a lot of great work being done up here. The 5Belfast Cannabis Group, the 6NI Canna Guy, 7Charlotte Caldwell. There’s the Save the Future campaign that’s been happening recently, they’ve helped some people out. They’re doing fantastic stuff. It’s really interesting I think, because I think you can track the conversation happening here both from a community level, like the Belfast Cannabis Group, who are building a community, to more family conversations, right up to more political-level conversations. So, I know we have an all-Party committee that’s been established recently to look at all substance use issues here which is positive.

I think the conversation’s going to take a long time, it’s going to be baby steps, and no conversation is going to be more important than the other. Even you, sitting in your living room, talking with your parents about this stuff, because… I think the generation above us are terrified. It goes against absolutely everything that they taught us. And we’re kind of like, “No, you’re wrong”. And sometimes I wonder if we’re arguing back with them and it’s almost like, “Oh, you’ve done this bad thing”, when they were almost doing it out of love. They were trying to keep us safe. So, these are hard conversations to have. Coming back to the North was a little bit of a culture shock for me ‘cause I lived in Vancouver. So, obviously the drug reform and drug culture over there is so progressive and lightyears ahead of here. So it did take me a little bit of time to settle in. I’m home a year now and as this year has gone on the cannabis movement and the whole drug reform movement up here in the North is just growing daily. So it’s absolutely fantastic. That’s fantastic to hear.

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK for those with an “exceptional clinical need” in 2018, largely due to the media exposure of two severely epileptic children who used it – Billy Caldwell and 9Alfie Dingley. Peter Carroll of the 10End Our Pain campaign recently reported that at least twenty families have had to pay for costly private medical cannabis prescriptions for their children, after the NHS [National Health Executive]  repeatedly refused to fund it for them. Do you think that policymakers are listening to and engaging with End Our Pain and other advocacy groups across the UK and Northern Ireland? I think that they think they are. I think they’re like: “Okay yeah, we know there’s these potential medical problems that cannabis might help with. But we still think that we’re right and our fears are justified and all the research that cannabis is bad is still right. So we’re going to find this way of that one loophole that’ll make it okay for you”. But they’re not actually listening to the whole body of research that’s out there, that they’re claiming isn’t out there.

And that’s what probably does frustrate me the most about the drug conversation here and actually it did start to happen a little over in Vancouver as well. The argument that the research doesn’t exist… No it does, you’re just choosing to ignore it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Or we don’t have to say: “We’ll need to do this research” or “We’ll need to see if that will work”, when you’re just turning a blind eye to the thing over there that’s screaming at you, like Portugal, saying: “This works, this works!”

Portugal is the biggest one of all for me, in terms of what could be done. Absolutely. I think they’re refusing to listen. And that really, really stood out for me when I went to a seminar in Vancouver and it was 11Dr. Evan Lewis. And he was from the Toronto Centre for Neurology, I think. He’s a well-established Doctor in Canada and he was giving all the research that literally was the same, word-for-word, that Billy (Caldwell) needed. And I remember I was like, “How possibly can I get them in connection with each other. Billy’s mom at the time was on This Morning saying: “The Doctors are saying this research doesn’t exist, it would take years for them to do it, it’s too dangerous”. And then I had this professional standing there saying, “No, no. I’ve years worth of research. Here’s this great number of kids I’ve helped.” And it was almost like I was being gaslit, because I was thinking, “They’re choosing to ignore it.”

It’s in reach, but it’s just not being looked at. Yeah, I think they think they’re listening, but it’s that moral fear of intoxication. They don’t want to allow too much medical use, because then they think that’s normalising recreational use and people are still terrified of recreational use. Because again, we don’t have a true understanding of what drugs are, what substances are, why we use them for recreation. And that was one of the main problems with the legalisation process in Canada, they rushed it through, for a number of reasons. They didn’t deal with those underlying fears that were driving it and it set up more avenues for it to be criminalised. And the big business could then step in and take over and that money wasn’t being filtered back into the communities. 

Sorry, did you say they opened up more avenues to be criminalised after they legalised it? I think you can still get a conviction if you’re caught in possession within so many metres of a school. And some other things too. So it wasn’t just accepted on the same terms as alcohol, with the understanding that we need to look at our whole relationship with all substances. It wasn’t like: “Cannabis is legal, away we go!” It was: “Here’s some regulations”, there’s still a stigma towards it. “We’re gonna legalise it without normalising it”, I think was their entire slogan. “We’re gonna legalise it so we can make the most of this market that’s clearly here, but we really don’t want anyone else smoking.” So 12Jodie Emery and 13Dana Larson and a lot of the biggest cannabis activists in Vancouver would call this Prohibition 2.0. I would say at this stage we’re probably on Prohibition 4.0.

Until your return home earlier this year you worked in Vancouver for a few years, where cannabis has been fully legal since October 2018. How can Ireland’s governments on both sides of the border learn from Canada’s cannabis policies, and what should they avoid doing? The cannabis legalisation in Canada should almost be taken at this stage as a “What not to do”. Because big business stepped in way too quickly, It was shocking. It was businessmen who saw an opportunity and didn’t have a notion what they were talking about, who were trying to make money. And because there were still all of these avenues for criminalisation and stigmas and legalising without normalising, the cannabis community was still feeling the effects of that. We need to make sure that it’s focused on social justice, because it will be legalised at some point. 

We’re gonna enter a conversation, we need the tax money. So we need to make sure we fight and make them make that money go back into social justice, back into the communities who are most affected by the war on drugs. The working classes, who were criminalised and had criminal records for possession of a joint, who were stigmatised to the point where they had paranoia. We need to recognise the harms that drug prohibition has caused as well as making room to minimise the harms that come from drugs. We can’t let big business step in and take that money for profit. When legalisation comes in, it can’t be a capitalist system, it has to be for social justice.

A similar situation arose over in California with Proposition 64, when they legalised cannabis. From what I’ve been told, a lot of big business interests swooped in and a lot of people who would’ve made a living off of it for years, who would’ve cultivated it and known a lot about it… They didn’t have that same access to the new legal market. Absolutely. When I moved out there (Canada) in 2016, cannabis wasn’t legal but it was medicinally and socially acceptable. So you had these little stores everywhere that had communities built up around them. You could interact with the plants in them, you could go in and smell them. You knew who your budtender was. It was a one-on-one interactive experience. And then because they didn’t deal with that fear and because they wanted it for votes and they saw this real business opportunity, it didn’t work out the way they needed it to.

Do you see the Dublin and Stormont governments taking meaningful steps towards cannabis reform in the short term future, given the tidal wave of support for legalisation that’s evident across the United States and the near-majority support for legalising weed in the recent New Zealand referendum? I think it’s gonna be a lot of conversations here for a long time. I think particularly in the North, and it links in to our post-conflict status, people are absolutely terrified of this conversation. So I think understanding hurdles and a willingness to overcome hurdles and even to start this conversation has to be looked at. Those are the short term steps that we’re going to take. But in the North here, drug legislation isn’t a devolved issue, so it comes from Westminster. I think the global culture of cannabis at the minute is going to force that tidal wave of making Westminster change it. They can’t hold out to that hypocrisy any more. So I do think it’s gonna come in that way. I do think that it’ll be within the next 5-10 years. I think It’ll be difficult and it’ll be baby steps and there’ll be a lot of arguments, but I do think the more global context of cannabis at the minute and places like Portugal and all the drug reforms that just got through with the (U.S) election…

I think that that’s gonna force it, maybe more than we are politically and socially ready for. But I think that makes it more important for activists like us to just keep having these conversations. Even if people think we’re going on about it a wee bit too much. It impacts so many parts of people’s life. Especially now, as mental health issues do increase and lockdown is happening. If cannabis was legalised in the morning, the issues of the lockdown would just go. We’d be happy enough to all stay in our houses and watch Netflix!  And up here in Belfast when the students were up at uni here, we suffered with some issues in The Holylands. That’s the area in Belfast where all the students live. It’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled stuff, it’s over-consumption.

So if you legalised cannabis over there, the worst they’re gonna get is a little bit of the munchies! The benefit it would have for agriculture here, if people were growing hemp and cannabis. And medicinally, with a range of stuff! And considering all of the trauma that remains in Northern Ireland since 14The Troubles.. 100%. We have very high levels of substance use and of suicide up here and extremely high levels of PTSD. There’s evidence to show that cannabis is a great treatment for PTSD and trauma. I think that plays into the bigger conversation of how we heal up here in the North, from our conflict. Our generation is the 15Ceasefire Baby generation. We’ve all experienced pain and we all want to understand more, but maybe let’s change that conversation to being about how we heal and allowing more time for downtime and recreation and creativity and seeing what can come from that. 

Can we find a more creative way out of that? We all use substances, we all use drugs. Let’s offer a few alternatives and see what happens. Surely drug reform is something that all communities can get together on. 100%, and that is one of the things the cannabis community up here is absolutely fantastic at. It’s one thing that we all want to unite on. We can still have our differences and different points of view, but we want to focus on our healing now. That’s a really big part of the message of the cannabis community in the North.

We really appreciate you devoting some time to this Órfhlaith, thank you so much. Have a nice evening! You too, all the best. Thanks a million!

References:

1 The Dublin Hemp Museum’s article on Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy:

https://medium.com/@dubhempmuseum/sir-william-brooke-oshaughnessy-medical-cannabis-pioneer-c94798fd7722 

2 Doctor George Sigerson’s Cannabiculture in Ireland; its Profit & Possibility, via Google Books:

https://books.google.ie/books?id=jBjDmgEACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

3 Here’s an article on W.B Yeats and cannabis by The Dublin Hemp Museum:

https://medium.com/@dubhempmuseum/william-butler-yeats-and-cannabis-fa8335789c37 

4 (Former UK Prime Minister) Theresa May’s husband, Philip May, has the largest amount of shares in

GW Pharmaceuticals, as detailed here by Researching Reform:

https://researchingreform.net/2019/09/27/company-majority-owned-by-former-pm-gets-uk-licence-for-cannabis-medication/ 

5 More information about Belfast Cannabis Group can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/belfastcannagroup/

6 NI Canna Guy interview in Weed World Magazine:

https://www.weedworldmagazine.org/2019/08/02/a-friend-in-need-alan-robinson-aka-ni-canna-guy-by-psy23/ 

7 The Story of Billy’s Medicine, by Charlotte Caldwell on Volteface: https://www.volteface.me/14474-2/   

8 Here’s an article about Alfie Dingley and others in the UK who urgently require government action:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/uk-medical-cannabis-epilepsy-children-nhs-deadlock-a9578971.html 

9 More information about the End Our Pain organisation: https://endourpain.org/ 

10 A profile of Dr. Evan Lewis: https://neurologycentretoronto.com/team/dr-evan-cole-lewis/ 

11 Jodie Emery’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jodie_Emery  

12 Dana Larson’s official website: http://danalarsen.com/ 

13 The outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as outlined by The Irish Times:

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/how-the-troubles-began-a-timeline-1.3987076 

14 An obituary for Lyra McKee, who wrote about what she dubbed the Ceasefire Babies generation:

https://bit.ly/3iKwJb8 

Are We There Yet? – The Long Journey to a Greener Ireland

Nicholas takes a look at the long road that awaits Ireland in seeing cannabis reform and the hurdles it currently face.

As the western world changes its perspective on cannabis, medicinal laws are introduced, criminal records purged and new jobs created from the procurement to the retail of the plant, have all become facets of a world that is loosening its constraint of the drug.  America leads the western world in this change with, as of today, 11 states allowing for recreational use and 34 states allowing for medicinal use,[1] there are still many countries that are dragging their heels on the issue.  This is no different in Ireland where cannabis remains illegal with little optimism on the horizon.  The history of the Emerald Isle and the plant dates to the April 1st, 1937 where the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1934 was enacted.  This act replaced the UK act of the same name to fulfil the Free State’s revision of the International Opium Convention.  This saw the Free State outlaw weed and cannabis resin. 

If we were to go farther back into our past with the drug, it would surprise some that there is a strong possibility that it was one of our own that introduced cannabis to western medicine.  Limerick native, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a physician renowned for his scientific work in pharmacology, chemistry, and inventions in telegraphy, was said to have brought cannabis with him back from his expedition of India in 1841.  O’Shaughnessy touted its medicinal benefits, mainly in the areas of pain relief and a range of therapeutic purposes.  Its use became popularized in England due to his revelations as Cannabis Indica had officially arrived in western medicine, remaining popular within medical groups until the early 20th century.[2] 

The Dangerous Drugs Act was not enough to quell usage on the island as cannabis saw a rise in consumption in the late 1960s.  The government established a Working Party on Drug Abuse in 1968 to analyse the extent of drug abuse in Ireland.[3]  In 1971, the group published a report on the recommendation that the legal and medical status of weed should remain under review, it also put forth prison sentences for the crime of possessing small amounts of the substance.  This was scaled back a bit in 1977 when the Misuse of Drugs Act replaced the 1934 legislation.[4]  Cannabis now had been placed in a different legal category to other drugs which saw discretion used by the Gardai when arresting recreational users and little push for prosecution depending on the expense of the substance seized.  This brings us up to today where the laws remain.  Today if caught with cannabis first time, you may get a fine of €1,000, on the second offence a fine of €2,500 and a third conviction may result in a fine of more than €3,000 and time spent in prison. 

Those caught in possession with the intention to sell are hit with harsher fines and sentences.  NORML, an international organisation representing cannabis users worldwide has an Irish branch in operation to provide a support network for those seeking the normalisation of cannabis consumption and introduction of laws pertaining to medical, spiritual and recreational uses.  NORML Ireland supports decriminalisation and is one of many Irish institutions founded to campaign for cannabis reform. [5]

The promising future of medical use first appeared in 1998 as regulations under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 listed cannabis as a schedule 1 drug, separating it from harmful narcotics.  In 2002, medical trails began on Nabixmols (Sativex), a cannabis extract used to treat neuropathic pain, spasticity, and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis, in a Cork hospice and Waterford Regional Hospital.  In 2016, Tristan Forde, a 2-year old boy with a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome, became the first recipient of a licence for medical use of cannabis oil.[6]  This development was a giant leap forward in cannabis legislation and was described by medical professionals and campaigners as hugely significant in the quest to provide the public with remedies for chronic pain and seizures.

Ireland’s most notable pro-cannabis campaigner Luke Flanagan was elected into the government as an independent in 2011.  This was a breakthrough in the discussion of cannabis reform in Ireland as in 2013 he proposed a motion: “That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to introduce legislation to regulate the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland.”  The motion was, as expected, defeated and the same year he introduced a private member’s bill, The Cannabis Regulation Bill.  The bill never saw a second reading.  In 2016, Gino Kenny, a Solidarity-People Before Profit politician successfully introduced a private member’s bill to make cannabis available for medicinal use.  Kenny has been a big proprietor of the induction to medicinal cannabis and was instrumental in getting the Medical Cannabis Access Programme implemented.

A big reason for the development of cannabis reform is simply due to foreign influence.  In 2018, when Canada passed a bill to legalise cannabis, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated there was some consideration given to the decriminalisation of the drug.  Unfortunately, developments closer to home, namely in the U.K would be the catalyst to lead to the way for more serious discussion from the Dáil regarding decimalisation.

All the progress made in the last 4 years came to ahead in 2019 where the Health Minister, Simon Harris signed in legislation that enabled the Medical Cannabis Access Programme to come into effect.  The programme is operating on a pilot basis for 5 years and will facilitate cannabis-based products for medical use.  The scheme was constantly delayed due to insufficient knowledge of quality-assured cannabis suppliers along with the constant hurdles faced with finding appropriate cannabis-based solutions in line with the requirements outlined in the schedule 1 of the regulations.  This is one of many challenging aspects faced with how the Dáil handles such issues.  The obstacles faced in finding an external supplier could have been avoided through cultivating the herb at home. Ireland’s climate is more capable of growing cannabis than the Netherlands, as stated by Dr James Linden of Greenlight Pharmaceuticals.  While hydroponic labs are an option for cannabis supply, Ireland’s temperature climate holds less concern for excessive heat, an issue that plagues the Netherlands’ outdoor cultivation.  Linden asserted that areas such as Carlow, Longford, Donegal, and Derry may be suitable locations for weed farms, adding in order the satisfy the demands of the future, the country would need a massive growth area.  The cost of setting up such a resource would be around €15 million.  The potential alone for growing marijuana on Irish soil introduces additional tax revenue from exporting to a global market as well as a newly founded industry for job creation.

Under the scheme, medical consultants can prescribe weed-based treatment for patients with conditions such as severe treatment-resistant epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.  Though the prescription will only be made available after all other treatments have been exhausted leading to some frustration over the scheme’s execution and positioning as a last-resort treatment for these illnesses.  The new legislation also gives leeway for pharmacists to dispense medical cannabis for the cost of any other prescription. 

Still, a lot has been left to be desired.  As of June, of this year, no one has been prescribed medical cannabis through the scheme with Deputy Gino Kenny stating:

“As of now, not one person has been prescribed medical cannabis under the access programme. It is an utter travesty that despite years of campaigning by many families and individuals, we are still at this place. I cannot emphasise enough the effect this is having on those who are still desperately waiting for this treatment.  It is welcome that greater access to medical cannabis is referenced in the Programme for Government, but it is deeds, not words that will give people access to treatment. The new Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken a number of times in the last Dáil about the need for the commencement of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme. It is now imperative that the access programme is commenced immediately to deliver the long-held promise of providing legal and medical access to medical cannabis products for those that need them.”[7]

This is compounded by the realisation that many families with licences are not being reimbursed the costs in procuring medicinal cannabis.  Licence holders are currently facing monthly bills of €1,200.  Under the Department of Health guidelines, the HSE is said to meet the cost of the products under the long-term illness scheme, medical card scheme and drug payment scheme but this has yet come to pass.  Solidarity TD Mick Barry said:

“Families in an already difficult situation are now facing huge uncertainty and the fact that nobody seems to be able to give them a straight answer only adds to their concerns.  Families granted access to medicinal cannabis under the compassionate access program cannot be expected to pay out €1,200 a month — where is the compassion in that?”[8]

As it stands, the scheme seems to be nothing more than hot air.  While the intention is positive and implies helping thousands suffering from easily treatable illnesses, in practice it appears to be a farce.  A dead-end proposal to keep cannabis campaigners at bay while operating under the guise of providing the public with medicinal cannabis-based solutions.

Nevertheless, Ireland still has a long road ahead of itself in seeing cannabis regulated as a substance no different than nicotine and alcohol.  While recent legislation yields fleeting moments of optimism, it is being met with considerable opposition.  A 2019 study published in the Irish Medical Journal outlined the main issue causing such pushback is the fear of usage among adolescents with risks of dependence.  At the end of the M.C.A.P trial, it is doubtful that these beliefs will change even with proposed laws and regulations cutting out the black market, which stand as the main access point for teenagers. 


[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/legal-marijuana-states-2018-1?r=US&IR=T

[2] https://medium.com/@dubhempmuseum/sir-william-brooke-oshaughnessy-medical-cannabis-pioneer-c94798fd7722

[3] http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1934/act/1/section/31/enacted/en/html

[4] http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1977/act/12/enacted/en/html

[5] http://www.norml.ie/

[6] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/cork-boy-3-gets-licence-to-use-cannabis-for-medicinal-purposes-1.2916977

[7] https://ginokenny.com/2020/06/29/calls-on-new-government-to-break-the-deadlock-on-access-to-medical-cannabis/

[8] https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-30981797.html

Educated Stoner – My Journey: A Life Gone To Pot

Sharon Letts is a freelance journalist, producer and cannabis advocate.  We encourage our readers to check out more from sharonletts.com as she documents her experience with cannabis from beating cancer to remedy recipes, essays and books to video and podcast interviews, and much more. Twitter: @sharonletts

I grew up in the 1960s and came of age in the 1970s on the beach in Southern California. Drugs were no stranger to the cultural environment, with the social norm of day drinking. At times our home was one big cocktail party, but thankfully, alcohol wasn’t a draw for me. Nor was tobacco at 13, mushrooms at 15, acid and assorted uppers and downers at 16, or cocaine at 19. I was and am a pot smoker, period. The first time I smoked a joint was in the wee hours of the morning in a gas station bathroom with my sister and a friend on our way to high school. It was 1975, I was 16 and when that bathroom door opened it was as if I was seeing the world with different eyes – with my third eye fully opened for the first time. Up until then school had been difficult for me. An undiagnosed processing problem went unchecked as I appeared to be a good student, but could barely pull a C in most classes. After smoking Cannabis I did better in school, as my concentration improved drastically.

It was as if I was ADD and weed was my Ritalin. I began reading like an alphabet hungry animal, wrote Haiku and poetry, and was first published at 19. As a bonus, I no longer needed to take liver damaging Midol for menstrual cramps, but did not realize how badly I actually needed it for emotional issues until menstruation turned to menopause in my 50s. When I became pregnant with my daughter in the late ’80s, I stopped smoking the herb altogether, thinking it was the responsible thing to do. This decision was not based on the benefits of the herb at all, but on the stigma of the day. When my daughter was an adolescent, I lied to her about my past use, thinking it would give her permission to use drugs – a common belief held by fellow moms at the time. When California State Proposition 215 was on the ballot in 1996, I voted for it and was happy it passed, but didn’t rush out to get a card. Throughout my daughter’s life, I’d partake if it were offered at a party or friend’s house, but I never kept any in the house.

It wasn’t until my daughter was 16 that the herb came back into my life in a positive way. She had been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia at 13 and had suffered terribly when a friend acquired a small amount on the black market for her to try. I rolled a joint and we sat in the garden, passing it back and forth. My daughter was a straight A student, an All-Star softball player, and a D.A.R.E. kid. She wasn’t interested in drugs at all and did not enjoy the euphoric feeling from the THC. That afternoon we spent a full three hours thrift shopping until the effects wore off. That night I made her a cup of tea before bed, hoping she could just go to sleep and get the benefits of the plant as she slept, but again, she did not like the psychoactive effects of the THC, which is activated with heat. If I had known about juicing leaf with no psychoactive properties I would have made her a smoothie, or cut some leaf up for a salad – as she was used to eating from the garden. But that was more than 10 years ago and non-psychoactive deliveries weren’t commonly known or shared at that time.

Today my daughter has overcome her ailments and is a nurse, helping others. Her first degree was in Plant Sciences and she has a good understanding of homeopathic medicine, making her own tinctures and tonics out of medicinal plants. Would I encourage parents to help their children with Cannabis? Yes I would, and do often. It’s a harmless herb, albeit for the strength of the THC, but that fades with time as the patient gets used to its effect. And just as we as a species have upped the THC count through hybridization, we are now bringing it back down again, with CBD rich strains more readily available, and good medicine to ingest being made all over the world. I’m sorry I could not help my daughter at the time, but grateful her ailment brought the herb back into my life. Since then this old stoner has learned a few new tricks about the ancient herb that turned my life around at 50. From recreation to medicine, that’s the story of Cannabis in my life. Who knew a stoner from the ’70s would be helped so much? Stay tuned for more sharing, caring, and loving the herb. For this Cannabis Evangelist is ready to puff, puff and pass some pretty dank knowledge.

Vera Twomey | Cork | 21.11.2020

Vera Twomey‘s daughter Ava suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome – a rare and severe form of epilepsy which causes multiple seizures a day. Twitter: @Veras1

The attention your 2017 sit down protest and your 2018 protest walk from Cork to Dublin drew are seen by many in Ireland to have been highly influential in seeing the Medical Cannabis Access Programme established last year. What was your reaction to its announcement? When the MCAP was announced, we were so delighted. We thought that hopefully the efforts that we’d made for Ava, what we had done had resulted in some visible change. That action had been taken and that something positive would be on the horizon for us. Unfortunately, the compassionate access programme has really turned into a trojan horse. I feel like there’s certain people out there that talk about cannabis being a trojan horse, which isn’t true. But although nobody is suggesting that medical cannabis cures everything, it is certainly the most effective medication that we’ve encountered and I feel that the compassionate access programme is the trojan horse, not the cannabis itself. Because nobody has been granted a prescription under the compassionate access programme because it’s not up and running. And so an individual licence is the only way that you can access medical cannabis in this country. So, although we were hopeful that something would come from it, it helped no one. It’s just been a token gesture up until now by officialdom.

Has the Medical Cannabis Access Programme been somewhat successful in treating Ava’s condition? Absolutely not, not at all. The cannabis access programme has been of no consequence to our family whatsoever. Our licence was granted on an individual basis and all of the other patients who have been prescribed medical cannabis in this country are getting their medical cannabis via an individual licence. So not only has the CAP not benefitted Ava individually, it hasn’t benefited anybody broadly because there’s nothing there. There isn’t even a product that’s attached to the programme as of yet, in the sense that they haven’t agreed prices on the medication. So they can put it out there and say that there are four products now on the compassionate access programme. Yes, they could be on the programme on paper, but in practice, nobody is getting access to anything. So, none of this plan is very grounded in reality. I would totally agree with that.

If the MCAP trial is successful, do you see the government leaning more towards cannabis reform or do you feel there will still be considerable opposition? Well the thing is, if the Medical Cannabis Access Programme was operational, there might be an opportunity for change or for adjustments in the opinions of politicians, civil servants and the medical profession. But they have created a programme that isn’t switched on, essentially. So therefore, there’s nothing positive going to come out of the CAP as it stands. The only thing that came out of the CAP was… It planted the idea in people’s minds within the country that this issue was sorted and that people seeking medical cannabis were being helped. But that’s not the case at all, unfortunately. It seems to have swept it under the carpet, as far as I’m concerned. Weren’t they seen to be doing something? They had the press conference, they made the statements, they had the paper. What they’ve done has only been of benefit, possibly, to their own appearance to be doing something, because it’s not helping patients anyway at all.

The government has made their views clear that concern for adolescent usage is their main deterrent to recreational cannabis legislation, but what do you feel is the reason they’ve been so hesitant with medicinal cannabis? Golly, there’s a question! So I think it’s a lot of reasons. One of the reasons I suppose is that the word cannabis has an association with people using it recreationally. And I think at the beginning, when we started back in 2015, there wasn’t the knowledge in this country about medical cannabis and the many studies that people were doing in different countries. I think that people genuinely didn’t know, so that was an obstacle. Engaging with people at the beginning was difficult, because you almost had to explain that it is a medicine, that it is possible, that it’s proven to work. 

Also, the government is referring to Doctors then who are practising for many, many years, who have an ingrained opinion about cannabis. They’d have a certain bias against it, yeah. The bias is there. So unfortunately, a lot of the people that government Ministers would be listening to would be medical people with an opinion that pharmaceutical medication is the way forward. Yeah. Not cannabis. So that was difficult But also, in the background you’ve got the lobbying by the pharmaceutical companies which is very real. And you know there is a lot of industry surrounding pharmaceutical companies in this country. They have a lot of power, a lot of money to be able to push their viewpoint forward. And I do think that at some level behind the scenes, that was part of it too. That if they granted medical cannabis to one person legitimately, it would open the floodgates for other patients. 

Really, when it comes down to it, the pharmaceutical companies… they’re running a business. They don’t want to lose patients. And people like the epilepsy patients for example, are a very valuable source of income for pharmaceutical companies. Because, you could be a person that could be diagnosed with epilepsy at eight years of age. You may be on pharmaceutical medication for the next forty years. So you’re a steady source of income. You’re a steady source of income, and let’s be real about it. Ava has not been admitted to hospital since she started her CBD and THC oil in 2016. She has not been admitted to hospital in four years, Richard. That’s amazing. Isn’t it? And I mean, Dravet’s Syndrome, that Ava’s got, is the most hideous diagnosis of epilepsy that you could really get. I was listening to your interview with 1Mary Biles on the Cannabis Voices podcast yesterday. I remember you saying towards the start that Ava was getting over 200 seizures a day at one stage, when she was very young. 

Yeah Richard, she was. I never came out and gave the real figure of how many seizures Ava would have a day, I kept it at twenty and thirty seizures a day, an amount that people could understand. Because it’s very difficult to understand how a child would even have time in a day to have 200 seizures. But if you talk about the different kinds of seizures, there are so many different types. She had them all. I sometimes think Ava was having seizures that were probably unique to her, they didn’t even have a title. So yeah, they were vicious. And even when she was a toddler, she was having those? She started when she was four months old. Our first seizure, she was vaccinated that morning at eleven o’clock, ‘cause I remember it well. It was ten to eleven (when) we went in (and) she was vaccinated. She had a forty-five minute seizure that night, and she was four months old. And d’you know, I remember it… but it was so shocking. It’s a blur, to be honest with you. Getting back to the question, there’s a lot of reasons why there hasn’t been progress. And the unfortunate thing in Ireland is that there’s not an opportunity for the medical professionals to get proper education surrounding medical cannabis in this country at the moment. Yeah. I was speaking to Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell (for an upcoming Green Lens interview) recently and she said that it’s systemic in Ireland. Trainee third level Doctors and nurses are not being equipped with how to treat people with cannabis in any way, nor are they equipped properly with how to treat people who are arriving to them in the hospital having overdosed on dangerous drugs. They’re not being educated on the most progressive treatment options. 

I think in university… I spoke to Professor 2Michael Barnes one time and he said to me that there’s about two hours of education surrounding the endocannabinoid system in a Doctor’s education in college. That’s ridiculous, in an entire course? Yeah. How long is the course, seven years? That’s appalling. The education is very necessary, but it has to be provided by the right people. Somebody qualified to train the Doctors, but also somebody who the Doctors can be comfortable with and respect as well. How much of an impact do you see the Citizens’ Assembly having on reform? Why do you think they’ve delayed the announcement of an assembly date for so long? I thought that it was going to be a positive thing. I was a bit concerned that I didn’t understand how it worked. I said I’d give a buzz and ring them and I spoke to a lady there and she explained how it works and so forth. And I asked her, when did she think that our issues surrounding the cannabis would be raised. And unfortunately, she said to me that she thought it could be more than a year, at least. So it sounded like it could be up to two years, because there’s several other issues that the Citizens’ Assembly are going to be addressing before the cannabis issue. So regarding the Citizens’ Assembly, I thought it was very disappointing.

So it’s in the pipeline after several other assemblies. You’d wonder why they’d bother announcing it as soon as they did, if they weren’t ready to announce a date. I think it was to make a show that something was being done about it. It’s a good sound bite, it’s a good thing to be able to comment on at the Dáil (the Lower house of Irish legislature) that the Citizens’ Assembly was going to be done. But we need action now. We need assistance now. We need the CAP up and running now. We don’t need to wait another two years for the opportunity to talk and three more years for reports and findings and this, that and the other thing to be done. We need action, not talk. The governments of Ireland and the U.K both seem very reluctant to be proactive about cannabis. I think Matt Hancock over in the United Kingdom is a grave disappointment as well. And he has made promises to mothers over in England, Scotland and Wales regarding the delivery of prescriptions for their children and reimbursements for the medication and nothing has come to pass. It’s very, very difficult for people over in the United Kingdom. They’re nearly worse off than people here in Ireland, to a degree.

I suppose because there’s a far bigger population in the U.K that they would feel the urgency that bit more than they do here. There is a much more sophisticated organisation of people over in England than what there is in Ireland at the moment campaigning. They have websites, they’ve even set up tutorials and information for Doctors and so forth. But still, even with all that, the resistance is palpable. So it’s very grave, because you have patients on the medication whose families aren’t being refunded for the cost of the medication. You have other patients who need medical cannabis and can’t get prescriptions, so there’s problems on every level, for everyone. With us, we’ve got the prescription for our medication, but they want to take the delivery of Ava’s prescription away when the Covid restrictions are lifted. So I feel like… You’re persecuted at every step, with anything surrounding cannabis. It’s difficult to contend with at times, you know?

Your televised appeal to Leo Varadkar (the Tánaiste, or Deputy Head of Irish government) during your acceptance speech at the Irish People of the Year Awards 2018 also had a profound effect on many Irish people. How has Varadkar acknowledged that speech. Has he remained in consistent contact with you since then? I was never in consistent contact with Leo. I’ve met Leo twice. The night of the Person of the Year Awards is interesting actually. I had a few words prepared. They were similar to what I said when I came up on stage, but what happened on that evening was, I went out for some air. The room was very warm and I suppose you would be nervous, ‘cause there was a lot of people there and with all our finery I didn’t want to fall off the stage or anything like that, you know? Vera laughs So, I went out for some air and I came back in and I was standing inside the door just having a conversation with a lady and Leo walked along. I walked up to Leo and I said: “Hello Leo”. It was the first time that I had met him in person. And I said to him, “My name is Vera Twomey. I’m Ava Barry’s mum. I want to know what you’re going to do about the legislation regarding the medical cannabis”, because the bill was being stalled at the time. 

He put out his hand to me to distance himself from me. He told me that the bill was completely flawed and it was going nowhere. And he was on a very tight schedule and he had to go. And he walked away from me. That’s incredible. So, I was genuinely mortified. I was left there standing, he had just said his few words and walked away from me. And I actually just started to cry. The tears were in my eyes. I literally stumbled back to the table. My friends and family were saying: “What happened to you?” and I told them. So, I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper, ‘cause before I had met him, I had considered talking to him directly. But I think I was nervous to do so. But after he spoke to me like that, I decided that’s fine. If that’s the way he’s going to talk to me I’m going to talk to him from the stage. So I amended the few words I had made. So that’s how I got up on the stage and spoke to him directly. I also met him another time after, when he attended a meeting at the Castle Hotel inside in Macroom and on the previous day a mother had contacted me begging me for information for medical cannabis to help her child and she had sent me a message about the child who had had fifty seizures the previous day. And when I went into the meeting room, I went over to Leo and I asked him again for his help. And I showed him the message that the lady had sent me and he didn’t flinch. Really? So, he said to me inside in Macroom, “I thought the medical profession was dealing with that”. And that was all that he said. 

And I was asked to step away from him then after that. I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Well, I can assure you Richard that I approached him as one should approach anybody. I approached respectfully. I was in no way threatening or anything like that. And that’s the response that I got. So Leo has been… he’s not somebody that I’ve been in consistent contact with. He’s not exactly been an ally to you. No. Certainly not, no. Your #TalktoVera hashtag has been trending on Irish Twitter. Can you tell us some more about it and what you hope it will achieve? I put up a few posts about the delivery of the medication and so forth. And somebody said to me, just last night, that it was fine to be putting up Twitter posts, but you needed a hashtag to get trending.

I know what she means, but I didn’t have a grasp on how many mentions you needed on Twitter for something to trend, d’you know what I mean? So, I asked people last night to use the hashtag #TalktoVera, because I’ve been trying to get on to Stephen Donnelly (current Irish Minister for Health). I’ve requested a meeting in any format; Zoom, a telephone call, at any location, whatever suits, you know? To be as reasonable as possible. And I’ve been trying to do that since September I’d say. That’s appalling. And he hasn’t replied in any way, has he? Well, to be honest with you. Before he became the Minister for Health, he had contacted me. I had spoken to him a couple of times on his mobile. I have his mobile number. But since he became the Minister, he will no longer engage with me or speak to me on the telephone. So that’s disappointing, because he would have spoken to me prior to being the Minister. So he would have easily had a measure of me and the way I speak and so forth. So I’m not new to him. 

But no, there’s been no meeting. I’ve tried contacting numerous other politicians to get attention surrounding getting the delivery of Ava’s medication made permanent. But we needed something on social media to highlight the issue. So we were using the hashtag #TalktoVera. And it started trending last night and I thought it was funny. Vera giggles It was trending last night with Joe Biden, Jesus Christ and Mary Robinson. Richard laughs That has to be a sign Vera, you’re up there with the greats! I just laughed and thought, “God, I’m in good company”, you know? Well that speaks volumes about how the everyday people of Ireland feel about you. Well Richard, I have an awful lot to be grateful for the everyday people of Ireland for. ‘cause without ‘em, I might be without my girl, you know? That’s the bottom line. ‘cause the support for her… Her birthday is this week, right? Yeah. And we got a card last week. Her birthday isn’t until the week coming, but a lady sent a card and I just thought: “After all these years, she’s still in people’s hearts. People are still sending her cards and thinking of us.” And I put up a photograph of the card and I mean the messages…. Message, after message, after message, and the support… It’s just incredible. And it makes you wonder, “What is it that is holding the government back?” Because the public support for the introduction of medical cannabis is there, it is there. I would say it’s a majority for sure Vera, yeah. I agree, I think so. It’s just taking such a long time and so much effort to move this forward and it’s moving so slowly. Surely if you have that much public support from people around Ireland, then it’s only a matter of time until you succeed. I hope so. Because we have a problem with delivery (of medication) at the moment. But I will always try my best to highlight the issue for as long as anybody is interested in talking to me about it. 

Because I’m proud of Ava and in a way, I’m proud of cannabis, if that makes sense? Because it saved her life. And you need to share the information, because there’s other little people. There could be somebody just today, at four months of age, that has their first seizure. And there’s another family starting on this road of dealing with chronic epilepsy. That could be starting as we speak. And so you’ve got to share the information and you’ve got to try and help people. I owe it to the people that helped Ava to continue and highlight things. Thank you for everything you do. You should be proud of yourself as well, above all else, for helping your daughter so much. Thank you very much for lending me some of your time for this interview, I really appreciate it.  Thanks for talking to us, bye.

References:

* Vera’s book, For Ava, can be purchased here from Mercier Press:

https://www.mercierpress.ie/irish-books/for-ava/ 

1 The Cannabis Voices podcast recently had Vera on for an interview which can be found at this link:

https://cannabisvoices.buzzsprout.com/989611/6461791-vera-twomey-fighting-for-ava

2 More can be learned about Professor Michael Barnes here:

https://www.profmichaelbarnes.co.uk/about 

Cannabis Saved My Life

Guest writer Adrienne Lynch bravely tells us about her life to date and how, despite ongoing mental health issues and related physical conditions, she was able to come off of debilitating prescription medications and to live a full, purposeful life, thanks to cannabis. It is a written testament to the potential for cannabis to completely transform lives for the better. Twitter: @AdriennevLynch

CAUTION: The following piece includes details about trauma, abuse, addiction, suicide and various conditions which some readers may find distressing.

My life has not been an easy one growing up. I suffered childhood abuse, sexual, physical and emotional. This left my mental health and body in a bad way starting in my teens. I suffered with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, agoraphobia. I could not function. I couldn’t keep any of my commitments. My life was just not working out. I have lost count of the amount of times I have tried to kill myself. I first tried when I was only 8 years old. I slit my wrist in two places. I didn’t get the places on my arm right thankfully but that is how tortured I felt as an 8-year-old in this world. My life then turned into an endless nightmare of visits to doctors and hospitals. Towards the end of my teens I started to develop an auto-immune disease and Fibromyalgia. Prior to this I had been a highly active person. Taking part in sports and theatrical activities. Always doing something but then that all stopped for me. I was put on prescription after prescription.

Struggled then with an addiction to sleeping tablets as I had been put on a dose twice the recommended amount for about 5/6 years. This in conjunction with all the other meds I was taking was just flooring me as a person and not giving me the ability to be able to live my life to the fullest or at all. I was barely living. I tried to kill myself so many times my mind would disassociate, and I wouldn’t even remember doing it. I even died once and I was brought back with a shot of adrenaline. I don’t know if anyone reading this understands what it is like to have adrenaline shot into your body. It burns everywhere, every nerve ending feels like it is on fire from head to toe. That was scary but not the last attempt. When I was in my mid 20s I had been reading more and more about medicinal cannabis. I had tried it a little when in Amsterdam and with some friends but never really thought about it. I started using Cannabis to try and include it with my other medicine to help. Eventually 3 years ago I came off all prescription meds for sleeping, for anxiety and for depression. I changed to using just cannabis. It took me a year to fully come off medicine. 

This has given me a life. I spent so many years dying every single day inside and wanting my life to be over because it was just too much. When I say cannabis saved my life I am in no way joking. I have a child now to care for and cannabis is the only thing that keeps my body functioning. Due to all of the different medications I was put on over the years and without any follow up or checking on me from professionals, my stomach now does not function correctly. If I eat without cannabis I will either be doubled over in pain or start vomiting. It helps me sleep, it helps me exercise and it helps me to be able to leave my house, something I struggled with for years. I am a very ambitious and hard working person. The outdated stereotypes we hear about cannabis need to stop. We need to be spreading accurate information as this could help so many people. Now I am studying for my degree and I am doing so well at it. I honestly can’t believe the difference. I get up every single day and I want to be here; I want to live and I want to grow old and watch my daughter grow.

I know now I can do this but my medicine is and always will be cannabis. Now I am stuck being a criminal, having to buy from people I don’t feel very safe buying from, especially as a female. It is a scary world. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been attacked on the streets of Dublin and I do not feel protected by the Gardaí in Ireland. I had to get my photos taken after one of the assaults, they took photos of my naked and bruised body. Then this morning I read about how 1a Garda videotaped a woman who was mentally unwell and shared the naked video of this woman, who went on to kill herself and yet the Garda in question still has his job. So for me the only thing that keeps me healthy is cannabis and my own home country is making me a criminal. There is nothing ethical about how the government is handling this issue. The scare mongering and false information that I see about cannabis on a daily basis is just so heartbreaking. How can they print such lies?

Ireland is locking up decent people for a medicine and making people live in fear just so they can have the medicine that works for them, that keeps them alive, and I mean that literally in my case. I am studying the medicinal uses of THC and CBD in the human body. So I am not ignorant to benefits it has. I do live in fear and stress about what will happen if I get caught with cannabis and this is just a horrible feeling and I just don’t think it is right. We need to see change happen. So many people would benefit and if you want to look at it from a capitalist point of view it would help out the economy in a huge way. That could help with social housing and bring down the impact alcohol has on the health system in Ireland. Given that this plant is non-toxic and the same cannot be said for alcohol, we need to see fair and safe access for both medicinal and recreational cannabis.

References:

1 This story is covered in more detail here: https://bit.ly/2TCD0gs

Nicole of Cork Cannabis Activist Network | 10.11.2020

Nicole runs the Cork Cannabis Activist Network across social media. She has been consistently drawing attention to how cannabis is presented in the Irish media and highlighting government inaction on legalisation. CCAN is on Instagram: @corkcan / Twitter: @cork_can

What first drew you to cannabis? I can’t actually pinpoint a specific memory, but I do remember that in secondary school (I’ll be totally transparent about it) my friends and I used to go down to a field on the weekends and smoke joints with hash in them. But I distinctly remember I didn’t like tobacco, so it kind of turned me off the experience. And then later, in college when I was doing my Masters degree, I remember that a couple of college mates and I got this notion: “Right, we’re gonna try cannabis flower.” I got all worked up and all excited about it and went home and crafted my own little bong out of.. Heaven forfend… Don’t slate me, a plastic bottle. Richard laughs And a pen, aww it was terrible! Looking back I cringe, like “What did I do to myself?” But it was a lovely experience, we all just kind of congregated in a little shed out the back. And I remember, I was just smoking away for about five or ten minutes and I was like: “Lads, nothing’s happening!” 

And I remember I just shifted back in my chair and everything just went really slowly, and I was like: “Ohhhhh, okay!” Richard laughs And it was great, we just had a laugh, we had a chat, and then we just went back inside to get warm. And I just knew from that point onwards, this was something that was inherently good. It could inspire people to have a good time and laugh and just de-stress. It was great, I loved it. 

And why do you use it, personally? What benefits do you feel it gives you? I don’t even know where to start, essentially the long and the short of it is, it makes me feel good. I mean I don’t even know another way to put it… Whether it be for relieving pain, or reducing my anxiety, or even just to promote a sense of introspection and just play! It’s fantastic for it, and I almost feel like there’s a taboo around feeling good in relation to cannabis, which really confuses me, because… Life is really stressful and it feels like people have forgotten that. And there’s such a stigma associated with cannabis. I don’t begrudge anyone a pint, if that helps someone relax and makes them feel good and helps them out, then cannabis is definitely no different. I don’t drink alcohol myself anymore, but again, I have no problem with someone who does. I don’t smoke, I don’t even drink coffee ‘cause coffee gives me shakes and I get really anxious, so it doesn’t suit me. I don’t like feeling like that, but again someone else might enjoy coffee.

For example, I can’t really stick prescription drugs. Like, even if they’re something like painkillers. Anything with codeine in it, I’m really sensitive to it and it makes me really sick. I had keyhole surgery a few years ago and when I woke up from the surgery they’d obviously given me morphine and I was throwing up left, right and centre. And then the drug that they gave me to combat the nausea from the morphine also made me sick. And I remember just being in the hospital saying: “Please just let me go home, I wanna smoke my bong.” And they were just like, “You’re crazy!” Laughter Essentially it was just this kind of dismissal: “Like, seriously?” And I said: “Look, I know my own body, these drugs are not helping, I just want to go home and use cannabis.” I checked myself out of the hospital early. But the second I sat on my couch, pulled out my bong, put some flower in the bowl and lit it, I was just like: “Finally, relief!” And like, that’s fantastic.

Just another more recent example… I somehow managed to mess up this entire part of my body the week before last, just by turning around in a car. The most stupid of injuries, but the whole muscle controlling my left arm, all the way through to my back. It was in agony and I was literally going around the house swearing every two seconds trying to move. And obviously I called the Doctor. They told me I had to come in right away, it could be something very serious. And they prescribed me Naprosyn, it’s a strong painkiller. Now to be fair, it did get rid of the pain, but the effect it had on me… I wasn’t able to eat a decent meal in nearly eight days and I was so, so weak. And I hadn’t consumed cannabis for maybe two or three weeks at that point, because I ran out and I just didn’t get any more. Then I finally got some more cannabis and I was able to eat a dinner! And I was so happy! I literally went from being so weak, with no energy, to dancing around the room, because I was so joyful that I was able to eat again. So, you know, this is a wonderful medicine that everyone should have the right to experience in a safe and controlled way.

So when did you decide to begin campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland? I don’t know if there’s a pinpoint moment, but I would say roughly 2014, 2015-ish, to the best of my recollection. Basically I just started trying to raise awareness about cannabis because I believed that it was a good drug, it was here to help. But then I was just frustrated at the lack of awareness that other people had about it. And especially the reaction I would receive from other people. You know, you would pull out my vapouriser and people would be like – makes a dramatic gasping noise – And you’re like, “You’re drinkin’ pints! No, this doesn’t work!” It’s ridiculous. So, it’s something that honestly I find really stressful. It’s something I’m passionate about, but sometimes it gets too much for me and I have to take a break away from it. Because it’s such a common sense thing to me that this should be legal and I don’t understand why our government don’t see that, so I’m like: “But, but, but….”. And my brain just goes on a bit of a… a kind of an Error 404, d’you know? Yeah. But I always come back to it, because this is just something that needs to be done, it’s just the right thing to do.

I agree. When was the Cork Cannabis Activist Network put together? Roughly when did that happen and who had the idea for that? It’s just me! Richard laughs Well, no sorry, I could be arrogant and say “just me”, but being honest, this is just me on my own, at home. Because, with my health, I have this extra time to devote to something that I care about. But honestly, I would argue that anyone who gets in touch with me on the page, anyone who shares anything from their phone or whatever, anyone that engages or helps raise awareness, they’re part of the network to me. Anyone that treats each other with compassion and respect and helps to promote cannabis and the need for cannabis law reform, they’re a part of it as far as I’m concerned. It takes more than just me to get this off the ground. It takes everyone’s support and everyone’s willingness to be vocal about it. So yeah, I’m just behind an account, but it is a network at the end of the day. I’m able to reach out and contact so many people around the world which has been amazing. And the support that people give each other, it’s really, really heartwarming. I love it, it’s fantastic.

How strong would you say cannabis activism is in Ireland currently, in your view? So strong. It’s a shame that we don’t get more publicity for the work that we’re all doing. I can only speak for myself, but when I look at the documentaries that are being made, the things that people are engaging in to try and raise awareness.. It’s incredible, and I don’t understand why it’s not getting more momentum in the media and why instead they’re choosing to publish such damaging articles… Don’t get me on a rant now, ‘cause.. Nicole laughs Rants are good, we want rants… one or two! Laughter Oh no, no, no! I’m so tired you don’t know what would come out! It’s very strong, but again we need more publicity, more TDs to pay attention to us and that’s just my goal. I’m gonna keep botherin’ ‘em! I’m so sorry like, but I’m gonna be a thorn in their side until they go, “Oh right, these are real people attached to these concerns!”, instead of just dismissing us. “Oh right you’re drug users, okay see ya!” No, this is a serious health issue and if you really care about a health-led approach to drug reform, you need to listen to us. We’re going to be the ones who are helping to shape this drug policy, because you don’t seem to know anything about it.

Can you tell me about some things you’ve been highlighting recently, as a campaigner? I wish it was more positive things, but I suppose it’s the negativity that spurs me to act because I’m like: “No, no, no, this isn’t right. We’ve got to speak up.” Last week, an apparent addiction specialist came out in an 1article with The Irish Examiner, and in his opinion, stated that cannabis and its effects long term and its abuse were apparently comparable to that of heroin, crack cocaine and benzodiazepines. And I just had a 2Kill Bill moment, where I was just like – makes Kill Bill siren noises I don’t know how you’re gonna transcribe that, but.. Richard laughs I’ll figure it out. You know, I was just so caught up in “Hang on a sec, why is this allowed to be published? How come The Irish Examiner aren’t publishing patient stories or consumer stories? It’s just always negativity and it’s being perpetuated by the Gardaí who are like: “Cannabis is a scourge in every community in Ireland…” No, it’s not! We’re cannabis advocates and consumers and supporters. We care about our community. 

We’re not lookin’ to cause hassle or crime or anything like that. We just want to stay home and especially with Covid, having a bit of cannabis helps. I mean, I’m content to just stay at home and watch movies or do yoga. I don’t want to be out causing hassle, definitely not. So, the comments that were made were really upsetting to a lot of people and it’s really inspiring that loads of people actually stood up and said: “No, we’re not going to accept this narrative”. And they contacted the addiction centre where the addiction specialist worked and complained about his comments. So much so, that they had to set up a call list, because they couldn’t deal with all the calls coming in. I was kind of proud, it was amazing! As you should’ve been. It was nice to know that people care enough to act, and that’s what we need. We need so much more of that. There’s so much that’s been goin’ on. Again, it’s the stories with people attached to them that inspire people to act.

That article that came out in the 3Echo (The Evening Echo) about the pensioner that was charged with cannabis possession in November 2019. That was just crazy and I made contact with a number of people around the world and they were just appalled that the Gardaí and the Courts would criminalise a pensioner who was sittin’ at home, playin’ his guitar or whatever his instrument of choice was, mindin’ his own business. And I love how he just openly admitted it, like: “Yeah, it’s for creative purposes, what’s the harm?” I understand the Gardaí have a law to uphold, but not at the expense of our elderly. That’s nonsense! And to give him a two year suspended sentence, only on the condition that the Gardaí could search his house any time they saw fit! That’s just madness altogether, there’s no need for that in a somewhat civilised society in 2020, no way.

You mentioned lately that Helen McEntee and the Department of Justice were hosting a 4public consultation online for their new strategic plan. That was another thing you were highlighting. Yeah it’s just really important, when I saw that pop up I was like: “Woah, this is huge! People get to have their say. And I don’t want people to be intimidated by it at all, it’s literally just a very quick survey of “How do you think we could better improve tackling policing issues, improving our Courts, protecting our communities?”, and cannabis law reform impacts all those sectors. So it’s literally just a case of making a point and submitting an article or a study or a set of statistics to back that up. It’s really simple and it would make such a big impact. Because the Minister for Justice really needs to work with us and make this happen. While cannabis remains illegal we’re just wasting time with this nonsense. There’s no need for it to be brought to Court, absolutely not. And with the tidal wave of legalisation over in the States, it’s surely becoming harder for them to ignore the will of the majority. 

For sure, every time they’re posting, I’m like: “What about cannabis law reform?” I’m sure they’re sick of hearing about it, but at the same time I’m not going to go away until something’s done. And more and more people speaking up about it and getting it into their faces, into their line of sight.. that’s definitely gonna push things forward. And it’s so heartwarming to look across at the States and see Oregon decriminalising all drugs, that’s incredible. That’s just so beneficial. For people who don’t know anything about drugs, they’re probably thinking: “That’s mad, people are probably gonna be goin’ out shooting up heroin left, right and centre.” But that’s just not what it leads to. You recently appealed for people to contact you regarding treatment by the Gardaí, the Courts and the healthcare system in relation to their cannabis use. Do you still want people to contact you for the foreseeable, are you collecting stories per se? Yeah, so it’s basically just when I’m speaking up about it. I can only speak on behalf of myself.

But it’s very useful and enlightening to share these stories of experiences that people have had, so that other people can realise what kind of stigmatisation we face when dealing with mental health services or the Gardaí or the Courts. Thankfully, I haven’t had any run-ins with the Gardaí or with the Courts. I have had issue with how cannabis is treated by people in mental health services. People go in to get help about life stresses, life situations, but as soon as they mention cannabis it’s just an instant change and people dismiss them as drug addicts and drug users and go: “Oh well, cannabis is causing all your problems.” And it’s shameful really, because people just want to get well. I always say, this isn’t about wanting to get high, people just wanna get help.

What can you tell me about the 5European Cannabis Advocacy Network? (Launched by Volteface, a UK-based advocacy organisation) You just became involved with them. I’m so excited! Any time that anyone’s passionate enough to start something up off the ground on their own momentum, it’s just awe-inspiring and it makes me want to continue what I’m doing too. So essentially, they’re a platform that connects advocacy organisations and focuses on cannabis reform all over Europe. It gives us a network of people so that when something is happening with cannabis in our respective countries, we can share that and then promote it in our own countries to raise awareness. It’s fantastic and I’ve only been involved such a short time, but everyone is engaged and sharing all of these articles and ideas and it’s just really inspiring and I’m so excited to be involved in it.

Personally, do you know people in your life who have experienced stigmatisation for using cannabis? Well, I can share a personal story that I’m quite hesitant to share. But I’m doing these kinds of interviews and appearances and stuff, not because I’ve any desire to be in the spotlight, I really don’t. I don’t want to put myself out there to be some sort of figure, I’m doing this because it’s right. I’m doing these because I’m almost scared to do them, and that’s even more reason to do them. The story I suppose I could share is… A few years ago, I did another interview for a publication, when I was first getting involved in activism. And it was this big deal for me, because it was a public thing. I didn’t really like how I came across in it. I felt like a bit of a weed nerd. I guess I was just embarrassed because of the stigma that was associated with cannabis at the time. I then had a discussion with my older brother about cannabis just to see how he felt about it and he said he’d looked into 6Sanjay Gupta and his report and that he was fully in favour of it. So I decided to put myself out on a limb and show him the article that I was in. And instead of receiving a positive reaction as I thought I would, like: “Congratulations for speaking up on something you’re passionate about!”, instead I got told: “You have embarrassed yourself and your family and you should be ashamed of being a poster child for an illegal drug.” 

Now, I was in my mid to late twenties at the time, and was being called a child still. But that really, really hurt me. Instead of being encouraged to speak up about something that was important, I was shamed instead, only due to stigmatisation. Because cannabis consumers ourselves, we know there’s nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to cannabis. It’s inherently good, that’s why we talk about it, because we want to share it with people. Unfortunately, there are so many other people that have gotten in contact over the years and they’re afraid to speak up, again because they’re afraid to lose their job or it might put their family at risk. They’re just worried about being viewed in a certain way, the stereotypical dumb stoner. But cannabis consumers and patients aren’t like that, we’re just people. We are just people. And we’re all so complex and varied, so to generalise everyone into this one category, “Oh you’re a lazy stoner”. No, that doesn’t work anymore, we can’t do that, that’s silly. 

Thank you so much for your time. And thank you so much for providing this platform for people to speak up, because we need one! And we need somewhere to put our aggression and our passion and make it public. That’s the only way that legalisation is gonna happen in Ireland. Personally, I think you’re a huge inspiration to anyone in Ireland that feels that they should start speaking out. Thank you, I appreciate the kind words. Have a lovely evening and take care. You too, mind yourself. Bye!

References:

1 The Irish Examiner ran this article recently on drug seizures, which includes the controversial comments

made by the addiction specialist in question near the end:

https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/courtandcrime/arid-40076177.html 

2 Kill Bill is a two-part film by Quentin Tarantino. It features scenes in which the protagonist, The Bride,

steels herself for battle to this dramatic, siren-based theme: https://youtu.be/cOy6hqzfsAs

3 The Evening Echo published the article mentioned here:

https://bit.ly/3BEqsWS 

4 The public consultation in question was open until November 20th, at noon.

Here is the government information page about it:

http://justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Open_Consultation_on_Department_of_Justice_Strategy 

5 The European Cannabis Advocacy Network (ECAN), which Nicole is now a member of, was recently announced

by Volteface here: https://volteface.me/european-cannabis-advocacy-network-ecan/  

6 Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN report, which was aired in 2013:

https://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/08/health/gupta-changed-mind-marijuana/index.html 

Natalie O’Regan | Cork, Ireland | 01.11.2020

Natalie is a Master of Law candidate at University College Cork with an interest in drug policy reform and harm reduction. Her area of research involves the criminological theory of stigma and its impact on cannabis users. She advocates for decriminalisation as the first step needed in the process of removing such stigma. Twitter: @NatalieORegan1

When did drug policy and harm reduction first catch your interest and why? Well, I think it was Vera Twomey was the first person that kind of sparked my interest in cannabis and the laws surrounding cannabis, and that was even before I studied law. And I remember feeling passionate about her fight to get access to medicinal cannabis for her daughter. And I remember, I think I was living in Wicklow or Dublin at the time and she was walking up to the Dáil and we drove and we stood on the side of the road while she was walking past and I started bawling crying. I didn’t know why I was crying, I didn’t know this woman, I didn’t know her daughter. It kind of resonated with me an awful lot. I think that she made a big impression. Yeah, I think that she kind of turned the tide on the view of cannabis in society, that it wasn’t just a drug anymore. That it is a valid medicine. And I think because she was able to show through her experience that it did help her daughter and that it had more benefits than side-effects, I think that changed a lot of peoples’ attitudes when it comes to cannabis and drug policy in general.

Personally, I have grown up with friends who have used all forms of drugs and I always thought there was a better way that society could respond to them and to respond to drug use in general. And I’ve seen the cycle of drugs, suspended sentences, criminal records, prison sentences, and it just seemed like it was a revolving door. They were going in, they were coming out, they couldn’t get a job, they were going back into prison and I just saw it as a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer’s money. Even where friends did go to treatment for whatever drugs, including cannabis, it was always abstinence-based and it was: “You have to abstain from drug abuse”. And I know a few who it didn’t work for. They’d relapse, they felt shame, they felt guilt, they felt like they were a failure. And it showed, especially in some of my friends, that abstinence is not a measure of your success when you are dealing with drug use. And I just thought the way all of that works is more damaging than helpful, in society.

So that was drug policy. For harm reduction, I left school at sixteen years of age. I went back to college at thirty and I remember the first couple of weeks at UCC [University College Cork] coming across 1Students for Sensible Drug Policy. And it was the first open conversation that I was witness to for safe consumption, what to expect when you’re taking drugs, what are the side effects, what feelings are you gonna have… And as a thirty year old woman who was around drugs in the community growing up, it was shocking that it was the first time I heard of it. It’s the first time this conversation was being had. And it’s not a very open conversation in Ireland, I think. Everything is very hush hush. Yeah, and even on campus you could see you were getting a couple of funny looks from a few people. But I was shocked, thirty years of age and this was the first time I was actually hearing a conversation about drug use. 

Do you have any particular examples of drug policy or harm reduction that you came across in your studies that would have very strongly formed your views on both?

I suppose the first example of a different drugs policy that shocked me was the typical example of going to Amsterdam. I think it’s a kind of a right of passage at this stage, to go to Amsterdam. And I remember the narrative around cannabis and drug use in general in Ireland was very, very negative. When I went to Amsterdam, it was legally purchased and openly consumed… Before going over there, I had an image in my head that you’d have drug addicts on the street and all the really bad social consequences that you would hear of that surrounds the narrative of the use of drugs in Ireland. But there was none of that, there were no social consequences that you could see. People were openly buying and consuming it. And I think when you look at the laws in Ireland and everywhere else, these social consequences are the grounding of this prohibition. This is why we have to prohibit it.

But when it’s not prohibited, or when it is legally consumed in Amsterdam, there are none of those social consequences that surround the narrative in Ireland, and that really, really was an eye-opener.

Where do you think cannabis users face the most stigmatisation in their lives, we’ll say in Ireland, for example? In my opinion, it goes through every aspect of a cannabis user’s life. And in a way it almost has been weaponised in the war on drugs. It’s been used to shame people, to tell people that it’s wrong. For external stigma, you have the general public’s attitude towards drug users and cannabis users. “It’s your own fault”, there’s blame-worthiness attached. They don’t want drug users living in their community. It’s a major barrier to employment with the criminal records and Garda vetting. It even affects accessing health. You’re going to hide your cannabis use from health professionals for fear of shame, for fear of stigma. And research has shown that health professionals, nurses, Doctors – they are very prejudicial and stigmatising toward drug users. 

Another thing that was surprising in my research was that, while training or practising, education on drug use is key to removing this stigma. That attitudes of health professionals changed dramatically once they were educated on drug use. Do you think that’s more of a systemic thing with third level education for people studying medicine, that the problem mainly lies there? Or that it’s more a case of what your parents and other authority figures would have said as you’re growing up?

I think education is something that’s not being utilised enough in all areas. From Doctors, GPs, nurses… Educating the young, the public in general.. I think education is a key that’s not being utilised properly. And when you’re talking about nurses and Doctors training… During their training in third level education, and qualifying to be a nurse or a Doctor, there is no training whatsoever on substance use. That’s astonishing, really. Even GPs have to get specialised training to be able to prescribe methadone to their patients. Unless a GP is going to specialise in it.. It’s disgraceful, why are you not getting trained in it, if you’re going to come across it in everyday life? There’s a lot of drug users in Ireland. And the fact that you get people addicted to drugs who arrive in the emergency room on a pretty regular basis from overdoses. It’s amazing that they’re not given that training by default. You’d think even in an emergency setting they’d get a little bit of training ‘cause they’re going to come across it but there’s nothing! It’s quite shocking.

Have you personally become aware of, or witnessed, examples of cannabis user stigma? If you look at the world it’s everywhere. From movies, to TV, to the language that people use like your stoners, your unproductive, your undesired, your lazy, like Cheech & Chong. It’s the typical example of “That’s what stoners are, that’s what cannabis users are.” And even in media portrayals, the use of the language and the way that they frame cannabis users is often in a very bad light and that reinforces the negative perception that the public holds. So people think: “Oh, I’m legitimised in holding my bad opinion of cannabis users.” Personally, I’ve witnessed friends who have smoked cannabis that have been rejected by their family, kicked out of home, rejected by the whole community. And friends who have been convicted of personal possession that wouldn’t have been able to work in their chosen fields because of their Garda vetting and their criminal records.

I think it is everywhere if you look for it and I think I wouldn’t have noticed how much of it was there until I started my research. Yeah. I think a lot of people would be surprised how much that can affect someone’s life, even if they’re caught with a small amount of cannabis. Like, caught with a joint you get a suspended sentence, but you still have a criminal record. Yeah. Why do you believe that decriminalisation is a crucial part of removing the stigma faced by users? I don’t think it is the final solution, I don’t think that it’s the absolute solution. But it is the first step. Ideally, I’d love to see full legalisation but I think we’re a good few years away from that yet in Ireland. If you remove the criminality that’s associated with cannabis use and remove the criminal label, you remove the legitimised stigma that the public holds. So, once the public perception is no longer legitimised, they feel that their opinion is no longer accepted so it may allow people to think again and have another look at cannabis users in general and maybe change their opinion. 2Portugal’s main aim of their decriminalisation was to remove the stigma, so by removing this, they changed the public perception which is very slow to change, but it is changing. They’ve increased the uptake in health and treatment options. They have increased the public perception of cannabis users in general. The public, as I said, it is very slow to change. But I think once everything around the public changes, it’s like a default that the public will have to change eventually.

It’s been said that racist fear-mongering in relation to immigrant minorities and their use of cannabis was a core deciding factor behind the original prohibition of cannabis. Would you agree that that was the case? It can be said. There have been articles on the original prohibition in America and how it was targeted at the jazz scene, that they were all marijuana smokers. But I think besides racist fear-mongering.. I think in general, society needs to label those that they do not want in their society. And they need to label them as outsiders, as undesirables. That creates a kind of “Them Vs. Us” attitude. “We are not like them, we don’t want them in our community, we are better than them”. By labelling people as undesirables, those that feel that they are at the higher end of society are able to legitimise their feelings towards the lower end of society.

And I think through prohibition, this label became formalised through the criminal justice approach and the prohibition of cannabis users. So I wouldn’t break it down to race or minorities or ethnicities, but I think it can be said in every society that there is a labelling process of undesirables and that’s where it came from. It just grows in society.

Do you believe that there is a high level of ethnic profiling in Europe, in terms of stop and search procedures by police checking for cannabis possession? I don’t think that it can be broken down to ethnicity alone. I don’t think that is the underlying reason for profiling. I’d say the stigma and negative perception of cannabis users can attach to a whole community as well as the individual. So anyone from a certain area will be under suspicion for drug use if there’s high drug use in the area. Like, here in Cork you can drive through certain areas and you’re stopped and you get searched ‘cause the Gardaí will use the excuse that there’s drug dealing in the area. Again, I think it comes down to labelling and stereotypes where you need to label the undesirables and this is what the undesirables look like. This is where they live, this is how they act, and that’s why it came, I think. In my opinion anyway.

What are some of the more promising examples of drug laws around the world, from your perspective? I think the increase in legalisation across the world is taking strides in the last number of years. There’s more and more countries legalising, whether it’s for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes. Even in the recent New Zealand referendum, although they didn’t vote for recreational cannabis, it was surprising that almost 49% of the country voted ‘Yes’. So, even that shows that a good campaign of information and education to the public has merits and can be beneficial. The example that comes up all the time for promising drug laws is Portugal’s decriminalisation. As I said, it’s not the be all and end all, it is not the final solution or the brilliant solution that everyone may think it is, but it has shown success. And it means that a generation of cannabis users will no longer be criminalised. From there, you can step up. That will have knock-on consequences, they won’t be criminalised. We’ll say, if it was in Ireland, they wouldn’t have a Garda vetting problem, they wouldn’t have a criminal record. And that little thing of removing criminalisation can have knock-on consequences far beyond anything you would originally think of. 

What is your opinion on the implementation of MCAP [Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme] in Ireland so far? I’m not really very up to speed on the medicinal aspect of it legal-wise, because I just steered away from it in my research. But, just in general, it needs to be expanded to more illnesses and more issues. You were talking to Alicia Maher recently. An amazing girl, an absolutely fantastic woman. Incredible. She stopped taking thirty tablets a day, I think she was taking? And it’s all cured by a plant you can grow yourself, and that is cheap as chips when you grow it yourself! In Ireland, she wouldn’t qualify for that programme. So, I do think it needs to be expanded to more illnesses. I also think that access to the programme needs to be a valid first option when you do go to the Doctor, where a patient can choose their treatment. Currently, it’s available only when all other options are exhausted. And I don’t think that’s right, I think it should be available as a valid first option. Also, in terms of access to filling your prescriptions in Ireland… There’s a lot of issues around it. People have to travel, they’re finding it hard to get their prescription filled… You shouldn’t have to travel to get your prescription filled. If you are legally entitled to it, you should be able to get it in a pharmacy, where you get everything else. And also it needs to be available on the medical card. 

You need to make it a viable option for people, you need to make it a viable choice for people. And when you don’t include it under the medical card scheme, or have a reimbursement for it, it is a barrier to a lot of people who would benefit from it. Yeah, and even the amount you have to pay up front to access it when you do qualify.… I think it needs to be made open to a lot more people. How do you envision drug policy, and in particular cannabis policy, taking shape in Ireland in the next decade? Well thankfully my name isn’t Mystic Meg, so I’m not very good at prediction! Laughter But I do think the first step of what we were promised when people were voting in the general election was a 3Citizens Assembly. That will at least guide the Oireachtas on what is the general public opinion and the general attitude towards cannabis in Ireland. I think without the Citizens Assembly, it’s gonna be the blind leading the blind in terms of making legislation for any form of cannabis policy in the future. Without some form of engagement with the public of Ireland on what the attitudes are, and what the issues are, through a Citizens Assembly, the Oireachtas are not going to do right, in my opinion. I think they’re probably gonna mess it up more than they will fix it, if they don’t. The Irish government’s current drug policy claims that it’s health led and health approached and health focused, but it’s still administered through the criminal justice approach. 

So even in August 2019 I think, they announced that for personal possession of cannabis, for the first and maybe the second time, being caught would not result in a criminal conviction. But yet again, it is still administered through the criminal justice approach, regardless. Yes, you’re staying away from the Courts, but it’s still an adult caution, you still have contact with the Guards, you still have contact with the criminal justice system. And I don’t think that needs to happen, I think that it was just laziness on the part of whoever was writing the drug policy. I’d love to see decriminalisation in Ireland as a first step. Hopefully legalisation in the future, but I think we’re about ten or fifteen years away from that yet I’d say. 

How do you think current Irish government policies in terms of harm reduction practices could be improved? In terms of cannabis, in general, there’s very little direction in the national drug strategy and in documents themselves, in relation to harm reduction. The dominant conversation around harm reduction in cannabis is usually about administration and mixing it with tobacco and mental health issues. So, I think a significant investment in mental health is needed in general in Ireland. Not specifically down to any cannabis side-effects, but investment in treatment, in alternatives, in education are some things that are greatly needed in Ireland. For example, education in the national drug strategy is limited to school settings and youth services, so this excludes a lot of people who are not in an education setting. I left school at sixteen, I didn’t go back to college till I was thirty. The first drug conversation I had was at thirty years of age. 

Health – there’s no discussion around the everyday health of a drug user in the national drug strategy. As I was saying a while ago with the GPs, they’re not trained, they’re not informed on drug uses and that has consequences on a cannabis user’s life. If they don’t feel that their GP is aware enough, they’re going to hide the fact that they use cannabis from their GP, which may have an impact on whatever medical issues they have. And then you may have other prescriptions that you’re using alongside it and you don’t know what you’re doing properly… Yep. I think that stigma is a valid harm of cannabis use. We don’t have the high risk of overdose like heroin users, or of contracting illnesses from sharing drug-taking equipment. We don’t have that risk. And I think there is an overlook of how important stigma is on a cannabis user’s life. It is a valid harm, it needs to be minimised. It needs to be discussed first and foremost. Even in the national drug strategy, decriminalisation is mentioned once, and I don’t think stigma is mentioned at all, at all, throughout the whole strategy. So, without incorporating that into your conversation of harm reduction, you’re not gonna get anywhere. Especially in terms of cannabis use. It’s not compassionate basically, it doesn’t think about it on a human level. No, it doesn’t. It’s very rigid, departmental, focused. There’s no compassionate conversation around it.

In terms of the harder, more dangerous drugs, like heroin, and people who are addicted to those substances… What suggestions would you make for harm reduction with those. Are we severely lacking in safe injection centres and facilities like that? Yes. What would be the first steps to start to deal better with severe addiction issues like that? They promised safe injection zones left, right and centre. But a lot of the backlash and the rhetoric for them is the ‘not in my back garden’ mentality. Nobody wants 200 heroin users turning up on a daily basis in their back garden, I completely understand that. But, if a community has an overwhelming heroin addiction, it needs to be addressed. So, we need safe injection zones, sterile equipment, needle exchanges. But I think one thing that’s not being discussed enough around heroin users is Naxolone. You need training, you need a prescription. It’s not available for the people who are out on the street, who are in the community of heroin users. It’s not available to homeless services, who go out in the evening. The Guards walking down the street, why don’t they have Naxolone on them? You have to get a prescription, you have to get it filled, you have to get training, licences… It’s a life-saving option that’s there, but it’s too difficult to get access to, or to be able to use it effectively.

Could you give some examples of some of the more shocking or striking examples of data you discovered over the course of your Masters research? I always figured that cannabis use was… not prevalent, but I always presumed that there would be a high level of cannabis use. But, some of the figures I came across in the European report, millions of people in Europe are using cannabis! It is the most widely-used drug and it’s far beyond heroin use, cocaine use, prescription abuse… And, I think, for something that is so prevalent and so widely used there’s not enough focus on it. The focus is always on the lower-use more dangerous drugs. I think it was 92 million in the European Union who use cannabis in their lives. Even when you look at prison numbers in Portugal during my research. They had the highest proportion of drug users in prison in 1999, to having the lowest in 2008. I think they decreased nearly 50% in the first 8-10 years of decriminalisation. The shock of how many people were criminalised for cannabis use. The drop of 50% can show you that that many people did not need to be criminalised. It’s amazing. It’s a bit puzzling why more countries in Europe don’t try to emulate their success. Even if you look at the figures by the 4Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência – CDT) in Portugal… 80-90% of the cases that came before the CDT had no evidence of addiction. They were not addicted to drugs, they were recreational users.

I always had the thought in my head, that usage does not equal addiction. And I think those figures from the CDT really cemented that view of: “Just because you use a drug, does not mean you’re addicted and you need help”. What was the focus of your research paper? What was your main area of interest? The title I ended up with was: “Blunt Trauma – Effective Stigma on Cannabis Users and Why We Need to Decriminalise Personal Possession”. Okay. I wanted a pun title. I was playing around with so many puns, I was absolutely determined to get one in there, to keep my Supervisor happy, ‘cause she begged me: “Please get a pun in the title, I love my puns!” Richard Laughs And she came up with a brilliant one, she called it: “Nip it in the Bud”. And I was like, “Oh that’s so good, but I can’t use it, it’s yours! I really have to come up with my own one now, but you’ve taken the best one!” Natalie laughs Yours is better, but they’re both good! So, I titled it “Blunt Trauma”, which I was proud of. 

Was that research paper focused on Ireland, or was it more international? It was kind of a happy mix of everything. I explained the international overlook of where Ireland is in terms of flexibility and room for manoeuvre in international law. I discussed the changing attitude internationally, from back in the United Nations Special Assembly in 1998 about advocating for a drug-free world, which you’re never going to get, to harm reduction and decriminalisation in 2016. And it has moved away from the fact that we’re never going to achieve a drug-free world. They were probably a bit optimistic! And I think the most striking part was looking at 5Kofi Annan. In 1998, he was a real advocate for a drug-free world, and he completely changed his narrative by the time 2016 had come around. He had joined the Global Drugs Policy Commission. He completely changed his view on international drug policy and it was quite refreshing to see that… no offence… even someone at that age can change their mind. You can be educated and you can change your opinion! 

Natalie, it’s been a pleasure, thanks a million for your time. Thanks very much! I’ll leave you with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result! I think that sums up drug policy perfectly in Ireland!

References:

1 Information on Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP): https://ssdp.org/ssdp-history/

2 A commentary on Portugal’s decriminalisation of drugs, by The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/upshot/portugal-drug-legalization-treatment.html

3 A piece on the Irish Citizens Assembly on Drugs by The Irish Examiner:

https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-40042595.html

4 Dissuasion commissions are mentioned in this BBC article on Portugal’s decriminalisation of drugs:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8106689.stm

5 Kofi Annan’s opinion on the illegality of drugs: https://www.drugpolicy.org.au/kofi_annan_time_to_legalize

Anonymous | Ireland | 05.10.2020

Richard chats with a multi-faceted performer who incorporates burlesque, aerials and pole dancing into her shows. That’s when she’s not modelling, organising events, producing, or booking talent. She also runs a burlesque and cabaret variety show. This interview has been redacted in places, with certain sections cut to ensure the interviewee’s anonymity.

Hello! Hi! You went to see a show in 2009 and that was what inspired you to take up burlesque. Yes. And what about the aerial arts side of things, when did that become a part of the picture? Well, it was actually my son who started doing the aerial stuff as a part of his occupational therapy when he was a kid. And when the unit closed, I went to find somebody that was doing some kind of aerial work to see if they could help me to buy the equipment and if I could possibly do it with him at home somehow. So that’s how I started taking classes. And when did you begin pole dancing? I started pole dancing in maybe 2008 or 2009, originally. And I started aerial, maybe 2010. But my first aerial performance was 2012.

It must be very strange for any people who perform that all of this restriction is in place now. I presume there’s been a virtual burlesque show or two in the last few months. Absolutely, there’s loads of them! I’ve performed at a few, I know loads of people that are running regular shows. There’s some great ones running from Ireland as well! There’s a lot of variety out there. Roughly when did you begin using cannabis? As a teenager. I would’ve started smoking hashish, I don’t think I ever saw actual cannabis. I didn’t see weed until… I was maybe seventeen before I ever saw it. Before then, it would’ve been hash. But I probably started smoking at about fifteen, sixteen. Okay. So you’re tenured in that area! She laughs Do you ever use it as a part of the rehearsal process or a part of the show, and if so, does it help in terms of skills and stage presence? Does it enhance the overall experience? I wouldn’t smoke before I go on stage, because obviously you need to be quite sharp. And I’m not a sativa smoker. It wouldn’t be my preference. And if you want that kind of mental clarity, that kind of sharpness, you’d want to be smoking sativa. 

My preference would be for indica and I would use it for several different things. Often for anxiety, or for nerves if I’m particularly anxious leading up to a performance. You always get a certain amount of nerves and that’s a good thing. You want that, you know? It means you care. If you stop getting nervous, then you should worry. She giggles Yeah. And you should throw in the towel, probably. Yeah, because that’s when you’re getting complacent and then that’s probably when you’re gonna make a mistake, or you’re gonna fall over yourself, or something’s gonna happen. Just to keep you on your toes. I also would predominantly use it for stretching, because I would do a lot of flexibility kind of stuff. And I didn’t start anything to do with flexibility till I was nearly thirty. I couldn’t touch my toes. Okay. And everybody thought I should not aim for it. Everyone was kinda like: “Ooh, I wouldn’t really bother with the splits.” Doubters! “You don’t need it!” And I’m like: “What you really mean is I’m not gonna get it, right?” And they’re like, “Well, you’re just on the wrong side of twenty. And when you’re twenty-five, your flexibility doesn’t really get any better.

So you’re just not gonna get anywhere. And look, don’t worry if it doesn’t happen!” And I was like: “Oooh girl, watch this!” Very supportive! Laughter Well, you ultimately proved them wrong. Yeah, I got my splits at thirty. Nice! And very proud of it. And I still have splits on both sides. But that’s because I take time to work them. But I also take time when I do want to relax and I want to stretch for a few hours. I’ll have a smoke and then I have the patience to stay still for long periods of time and actually really relax and move into a stretch, so that I’m not holding or pushing against it, which is kind of counteractive. So you’d say it helps you to get in the zone, in the right mind state as well.  Very much so. And I do know a lot of athletes that would use it specifically with things like that, when they need to focus and concentrate and they need to stay in one position for a long time and relax into it when your body doesn’t necessarily want to, you know? Yeah, or if you yourself are kind of restless with all of the thoughts going on in your head. Yeah. 

A previous interviewee of mine, Sienna Moodie, said similar. That it helps her to get in the zone, to stretch and to do meditation. She incorporates it into her daily lessons with clients. I feel that lifestyles like hers and yours help to disprove the stereotype of the lazy stoner or the waster. I really don’t get that. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We all have a couple of friends that probably smoke too much for their motivation. She giggles If that makes any sense? Where it doesn’t balance. But most people I know would be very high-functioning stoners. People that smoke quite regularly, when they want to, when they need to. But still have a very high-functioning lifestyle. That train a lot, that work out a lot, that use it to balance, because it’s so… We run at such a high level all of the time that it’s good to have something that helps you to – clicks fingers – switch off really quickly and just disengage. If only people had easier access to it! I know! It would be very helpful. I also would use cannabis for chronic pain. I have a lot of gynae issues, I had a lot of cysts on my ovaries that burst and I ended up having a couple of operations. 

And I had a part of my womb removed – one of my fallopian tubes and one of my ovaries on one side. I’m really sorry to hear that. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. That’s okay. Well, it was a few years ago. And there was a lot of rehabilitation on my pelvis and stuff that needed to be done. A lot of scar tissue, which led in itself to its own problems. But I can pain manage just fine without any medication whatsoever, if I have weed. I don’t need to take any painkillers, which I’d prefer not to. When I was in hospital, I was on morphine and it didn’t agree with me. I don’t do very well with very strong painkillers. I vomit a lot. I’ve a very easily upset stomach, so even though I was on a morphine drip, it meant that I vomited quite a bit and I was hallucinating. And I really didn’t like it and kept begging to be taken off it. So once I got home even though I had very heavy painkillers, the first thing I did was start swapping them and lessening the dosage of the painkillers and then changing over to a more natural approach. Okay. And still now, if my hip in particular gets very caught up, or if I have a lot of bloating… because I do have a tumour on the one remaining ovary that I have, still. 

But if they take out the one remaining ovary I have I’ll go into early menopause, and I’m only nearly forty. So obviously we’d like to avoid that, if possible. So some days it would be more painful than others and it also helps me to manage that, you know? So for me, it’s very much an all-rounder. You don’t wanna see me when I’m sober. I talk so fast that it’s really hard to keep up with me. Laughter So it’s very valuable to you in your daily life. It can do for any number of issues and for me it’s a part of my life in a very fundamental way. I genuinely don’t believe that I’m addicted to it in any way, shape or form. Because if I don’t have it I’m not upset, I’m not angry, I’m not annoyed, I’m not pacing. Right. I might get that way if I don’t have a cigarette for twenty-four hours. It’s the only thing I can genuinely say I’m possibly addicted to, cigarettes. And coffee! Richard laughs You and me both! Although, I changed to decaff and that can happen too. I just have to get the flavour of it. Okay. I don’t see it as an addiction by any means, but I definitely see it as something that enhances my life, makes me more comfortable to live in all aspects.

Whether it’s down to pain, down to anxiety. Just helping my creativity, my focus, my stretching. It enhances my life in a lot of ways. So it’s very, very, very upsetting to me, the laws here. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s not legal, because I genuinely forget. I have been approached in a very busy bar before… where I had forgotten myself and started rolling on the table. While having a conversation with a couple of other people, one of the bar staff came over and went: “Sweetie, will you do me a favour? Will you put that away? Because it’s really smelly.” And I looked really surprised and went “Sorry?”, and then looked down at what I was doing and went: “Oh my God, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” Richard laughs Like, “One second, I’ll just fly it off the table!” and he just started laughing and said: “I wasn’t really sure what was happening for a second. Smells beautiful by the way!” And I was like, “Sorry!” Laughter These things happen. So many people smoke. I’ve never, ever… I’ve never had anybody turn around and be like, “Oh…” Even if they’re not smokers, I find people very accepting, very open. 

It’s only recently that I felt shame about it. And really disliked that, a lot. Is that down to what happened [some months ago]? Yeah. They went out of their way to make me feel shame and that bothered me a lot. Do you want to talk about that? Yeah that’s no problem. I can give you some information on it of course, but as nothing has come of any proceedings as of yet, I don’t know what I can say. I have a solicitor who advised me to be very careful about what I say in general. But I’m pretty sure five years ago, if I had had an abortion, I would’ve been told to do the same thing! Right. I fought for 1Repeal the Eighth [a campaign for women to have the right to a legal abortion in the Republic of Ireland] and I never had an abortion, and obviously now knowing my gynea history I’m never going to have one. I couldn’t even get pregnant if I wanted to. But I fought for it because I thought it should be a fundamental right for anybody to make that choice for themselves. And that’s how I feel about this as well. 

Most friends that I’ve spoken to agree with me on that, in that they may or may not be smokers, but they believe that as a fundamental human right, that I should not be made to feel ashamed for something as simple as a plant. Yeah. And as an adult who knows how to use it responsibly and who in your case actually requires it. I have my own house, I keep to myself, I run my own business. I don’t bother anybody. I barely go out, so it should be of no consequence. And if they could make me feel like that, and if they could treat me the way that they did. I would consider myself pretty well-spoken, I’m quite calm, I’m quite coherent. I’m usually pretty okay at diffusing a situation, and that was very hard to diffuse. And I felt very threatened in my own home by a member of Gardaí. And that felt extremely uncomfortable. And it just made me think, “If that’s the way they’re behaving to a thirty-nine year old woman, what way are they behaving to sixteen year old young fellas?” I had to remind them that I wasn’t some teenager that they found 2gattin’ in a field. She giggles And I also had to remind them it wasn’t 3Narcos. 

Richard laughs You know what I mean? This is [Ireland]. She laughs In broad, general terms, can you give me an outline of what happened? I would be surprised if any charge could be made from it, being honest. I’d be surprised. I wasn’t fully within the law, but how far I was outside it is kind of questionable. Because yes, there was plants. None had flowers. None had buds. None had anything but leaves. They were about four weeks old, and quite bushy. They were not auto-feminized, and very likely male. But technically that’s not quite legal either. It seems to be a grey area of stuff. Yeah, with seeds. It doesn’t really make much sense, in my opinion.  Yeah. So apparently, once you have planted that seed in soil and put water on it, then that technically counts. And I just think the whole thing is quite ridiculous. The more you look into it, the more ridiculous it gets. And it is all at their discretion. She laughs Human nature kicks in there as well, you know? With discretion. Yeah. And I’d like to say they’re all exemplary human beings, but unfortunately out of my experiences with them, [it was] not great…

And it was [redacted] of them who arrived – Well there was… [redacted] male Guards and one female, who actually came into my house first. By the time they were leaving, they had brought [redacted]. Oh my God. She giggles As if you were the cartel… I was like, “Lads, I swear! 4Pablo Escobar is not hiding in the closet here anywhere! I came out of the closet years ago.” She laughs “There’s no-one else hiding in there, promise!” Oh my goodness. So I still don’t know where it came from. I have no idea what the background to it was. I don’t know exactly what they were looking for. I don’t know exactly what they expected to find. I don’t know exactly why they felt it was necessary to have such a show of force at [redacted] that night. Yeah. And without identifying any of them, how did they deal with you throughout the raid? I have to say, there were two male Guards that I found particularly respectful. The female Guard was very respectful. There were [redacted] male Guards that behaved like schoolboys. A lot of giggling, snickering, this kind of stupid behaviour. And there was one actual aggressive Guard, who slammed me against the wall at one point. 

Slammed me against the door frame. I had to keep reminding him I wasn’t going anywhere. He told me not to run. I asked him where he thought I was running to, in my slippers and pyjamas. Yeah. I don’t even have a car! I have no idea what he thought I was trying to do. I just reminded him that I was trying to go and get the thing that he asked me to get. So, it was very unnecessary behaviour. He very definitely tried to intimidate me and didn’t like it when it didn’t work. I’m not intimidated easily. It sounds like he was trying to get an aggressive reaction out of you, to escalate it. Yes, a hundred percent. That is my belief. To the point where I told both of them, there was no point in trying to continue to goad me. So, at one point, the female Garda had taken me into my bedroom as they were going through my stuff. And there were [redacted] male Guards in the hallway that were snickering and whispering and laughing. And I overheard one of them say: “Yeah, she’s a stripper.” And I got annoyed, and I said: “Can I ask why there are [redacted] men in my house, and why [redacted] of them are behaving like schoolboys out in the hallway?”

“Can the [redacted] men, or at least [redacted] of you, leave my house now that you’re finished searching? There’s absolutely no good reason for you to be in here. Yeah. “You wanna ask me questions? You only need to have one guy and one female present.” I said: “The female Guard is not to leave under any circumstances. The guys can do what they want. Ask me whatever questions you want and get out of my house.” I won’t lie, I was very annoyed about it at that point. I was quite indignant also, at that point. Understandably. Mostly because I don’t like being pushed around in my own house, and slammed around the place, and spoken to like I’m a ten year old. When I kept reminding them that when they stepped into my porch immediately and asked me what I had, I gave it to them. Yeah. You were cooperative with them from start to finish. From the get-go. And they kept telling me to be compliant. And I reminded them that I had been compliant at every possible point. They had found nothing that I hadn’t given them.

And they had been searching for a good hour at that point, and it was all completely unnecessary and they knew it. Yeah. Well I’m very sorry to hear that you had to go through all of that. I won’t lie, I’ve never quite had that experience, and I was very shook afterwards. And you wouldn’t expect to have an experience like that really, over something like [redacted] plants. You shouldn’t have that experience from a member of the Gardaí, because you know what? Yes, they are held to a higher standard and they should be held to a higher standard than a normal human being. Because that’s exactly what their job is. And they shouldn’t be trying to goad somebody into reacting in a particular way. I’m lucky that I have the presence of a person to keep my calm. Not to say that I wasn’t upset, I was absolutely shaking. And I was annoyed, I was angry, I was upset and a whole range of emotions. And afterwards, it got to me a lot. To the point where I decided that I really… I wasn’t going to be made to feel ashamed anymore. And I wasn’t going to hide the fact that I was a smoker anymore.

And I was gonna stand up and I was gonna step out. And I don’t care if that makes me a target, which I realise that it is actually doing. But I don’t care. I’ve actually caught two of the Guards that were in my house following me, at least three different times. Yeah. And I obviously know their faces by now. They’ve been in my home and they’re not making much of an attempt to hide it either. And they brought me to the station that time, from my house, for the [redacted] plants. Now, I’ll be honest. One of the Guards had slammed me around so much that I said: “Look, you’re gonna have to ask me your questions.” And he said to me: “I’m gonna slap cuffs on you and take you to the station”, and I said: “You know what? If you’re gonna keep threatening me, just do it. Take me to the station, because your behaviour is getting out of hand. I no longer feel safe or comfortable in my own house, even with the female Guard here. So I’d rather you took me into a station so that there was other people and cameras when you’re questioning me. Because whatever it is that you want to know, I don’t know. 

I can promise you that much, because you’re behaving in a really ridiculous manner and I know nothing about anything… so, you’re shit outta luck.” So, they took me to the station. They fingerprinted me, they DNA-swabbed me, to run me past 5INTERPOL [the International Criminal Police Organisation (ICPO), based in France]. INTERPOL. INTERPOL! I started laughing, and said to him: “What is it you think you’re going to find on INTERPOL?” So, I should tell you. I was in court in [redacted] this year. I was raided last year. So all of this escalated pretty quickly. I was raided and they found about [redacted quantity]. Which I handed to them. And I went to court. And they brought me up in front of the Judge. And now, in fairness to my solicitor, I do have a range of jobs, as you’ve seen. I’m not just a performer, so I’m not just an artist. I’m also a producer, I could be a booker for circus entertainers, for Christmas parties, for festivals or whatever. 

So, my job is a bit of a broad range. So, my solicitor told the Judge that my job was a “recruiter for entertainment services, worldwide.” Okay. All I heard was sex trafficker. She giggles And I nearly shrivelled. I took a very sharp intake of breath and went – gasps – “What did you just say? What even is that, that sounds like a sex trafficker to me.” The Judge snapped his head up pretty quickly and looked at me and I was asked to stand. I stood up and the Judge went through me for a shortcut. Told me I should be ashamed of myself and all the rest of it. I had to stand and put my head down and take it, until the Judge mentioned that I was found with [redacted] worth and I was being fined [redacted]. Yeah. And I said: “Sorry, it was [redacted].” And my solicitor was like – makes a shushing sound – “You can’t say that.” And I said to him “Why can’t I say that?” And he said: “Because, then you show that you know what the weight is. And you know the value.” And I said to him: “That’s ridiculous!” Like, you don’t need to be some kind of scientist. 

But it’s a very strange setup, the whole court system. You sit in there, like I had to do for [redacted] days, for three hours each time. And you just watch the conveyor belt.  Young fella, after young fella, after young fella, after young fella. Weed, weed, weed, weed. [Redacted] cash fine, into the office. Cash to the solicitor. Cash in the office. 6Simon [Simon Community, a homelessness charity] must get at least five or ten grand a day, in €300 fines, that go through that court. That is a huge amount of money. But, it’s like watching a wheel. So that was in [redacted] this year, and then boom! Suddenly raided there again, months later. My goodness. One of the reasons why I felt it was in my best interest to go into the station and have it processed is so that they can’t keep just randomly raiding me. They need to have a reason. Because if that wasn’t processed and it was at their discretion, that technically would not be down as a raid. They would’ve gotten a warrant for a raid, but it’s not the same with a conviction. It’s not a finalised case, so it’s an ongoing investigation. So, before they raid me again, they need to have another good reason. An actual reason.

So that last raid then spurred you on to speak out more about it – And to want to campaign. And are you now collecting stories from others who have had similar treatment by the Gardaí in the past? Yes, so that is the plan for it eventually. It basically started because of me telling my story. I had a lot of people message me to talk to me about it, and then recount their own stories of either being raided or having their car stopped and searched. Or being stopped on the street and searched. And quite often being found with a little bag of weed or whatever. And nine times out of ten, the Guard just saying: “I’m just going to take that and it’s going to go away.” That’s happened to me at least [redacted] times. At least [redacted] times. She laughs I’ve even had a Guard compliment me on how well my joint was rolled, once, before putting it in his pocket and telling me: “Don’t worry, it won’t go anywhere.” And I said: “Except down your neck, is it?” So the last time when they found a joint here, when they raided the house this time, I made them process it. I made them process the joint that they found.

Because if I’m not going to have it, they’re not having it either! Right, absolutely yeah. Laughter So right now, loads of people have been telling me their stories. And what I’ve been doing is I’ve been asking them if it’s okay if I come back to them to collect them. Some people are totally fine with it and some people are very nervous about it. Some people are really fine about being completely public about it, some people are not so okay about being public about it and maybe say they’re okay with their stories being there, but not their names or their faces being used. So right now, it’s just talking to people and finding out their comfort levels. And also hearing the different stories. And not just people that have been stopped and searched. Because it’s interesting to find out how many times people… and I know people that are in their fifties, and they’re like: “Oh God yeah, Jesus, I’ve been stopped now at least thirteen different times. Because I’ve been smoking and they’ve smelled it and they just come over and they take it off me.” So what are we doing? Why are we not decriminalising? Why has that not been done already?

It’s the same thing over and over and over, for years. Exactly, time for change. And obviously that’ll affect people’s work lives or their employability and they can get a criminal record. That’s the threat that they use. So, I suppose for now with the stories thing, you’re asking them to jot down their own notes on an individual basis, and then at some point you’ll follow up with them and collect it all? Yeah. I’ve spoken to everybody individually, not just by message but by video calls as well. I do have some recordings from people who are okay with speaking about it. Right now, I’m predominantly speaking to women. My main interest has been interactions that women have had where they have felt threatened. And who felt that there was a man using his physicality to be looming over you to get close into your personal space, which is what I’d experienced. And I’d never experienced that from a Guard before, where I had to ask him to step back a few times.

And I felt quite panic-y about it. Understandably. And I wouldn’t be a very nervous person. So, it was very apparent to me that he was very deliberately doing it. Yeah. And that was what I was getting from a lot of other women who would be a lot quieter than me. And I’m not quiet at all… She laughs Not by any means! I was shouting at the guy, I was telling him: “Back up! If you’re within arm’s length you are in my personal fucking space! Step back!” Laughter I’m not exactly a wallflower, by any means! So I was talking to women that would be quite shy, who had been caught with weed. Who felt very threatened, and who are very small! These are women that are fucking 5’2! That are being towered over by fucking men over six foot! What kind of a problem have you got, that you feel the need to do that!? And actually, you wouldn’t really hear the stories about overly-aggressive Gardaí. You hear all the time about the police in the United States being incredibly aggressive and violent. But you never really hear similar stories publicly in Ireland, about the Gardaí. So, maybe those stories are long overdue.

I think they are. I was surprised with the amount of women that got on to me. And that was actually what spurred it, you know? Talking to women that had found themselves in that position. Nobody had ever mentioned it before to me, and I had never experienced it before. I think it made me quite uncomfortable and it’s definitely something that a conversation needs to be opened about. Because if there’s people that I know in my circles that have had that experience, there’s got to be a lot more women in the country… We’re more than happy to promote your efforts with that in future. Thank you very much. I think the more that we create a cannabis community that supports each other, the better off we will be. 

[Gardaí] should be concentrating on heroin. Absolutely, all the truly dangerous drugs. The drugs that are actually sending people to the hospital. I’m sure there’s plenty of real crime out there. How many stoners do you know that have ever gotten stoned and went out and broke a window, or got in a fight? None whatsoever. But yet, every Saturday night, I bet you you’re gonna find a drunk person doing it. Oh absolutely, yeah. Throwing up and getting in fights and damaging property, the whole lot! Totally socially acceptable! Laughter Thanks so much for your time, it was an absolute pleasure! Likewise!

References:

1 Repeal the Eighth was a campaign to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution,

so that women could have a legal right to abortion in the Republic of Ireland. It led to a

successful majority voting Yes in a national referendum held on May 25th, 2018:

https://www.rte.ie/news/analysis-and-comment/2018/1222/1018670-eighth-amendment-referendum/

2 Gatting is Irish slang for drinking alcohol, usually in an illegal context (i.e. in public outdoor spaces,

or when underage). It’s not likely to be defined in a long-established English language dictionary!

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=gatting 

3 Narcos is a television drama following the exploits of infamous South American drug cartels, such as the

Medellín cartel. More information at the Internet Movie Database: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2707408/ 

4 Pablo Escobar was a notorious Colombian drugs kingpin who founded the Medellín cartel:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Escobar 

5 INTERPOL [the International Criminal Police Organisation (ICPO)] was first established in France in 1914:

https://www.interpol.int/Who-we-are/Our-history

6 Simon Community is a volunteer-based homeless charity in Ireland and the UK, which also helps to treat

people with drug addictions and to assist them with finding employment.

More information at: https://simon.ie 

 

Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France | Review

Nicholas reviews educator and historian David A. Guba Jr’s book, Taming Cannabis.

One of the most prevalent fears promoted against marijuana use comes from the categorisation of its users and the subsequent stereotyping and fearmongering of the effects it has on these individuals.  This is shrouded in racist and xenophobic narratives perpetrated by a government to ensure control of its citizens.  The categorisation of marijuana as an exotic foreign-made drug heavily abused by the foreigners that introduced it had led France down a path for many prejudices against its legislation.  How weed became a tool of discrimination and stereotyping of a certain people is found in the history of every Western country, but there is a more intrinsic side of this repression and it is found in France.

In the wake of America’s legislative reform and the subsequent benefits that have followed in taxes and a decline in criminality, other countries have begun to look introspectively at their histories with the drug to test the waters with decriminalisation and eventually full legalisation.  Most countries find similar historical threads with marijuana prohibition, namely the perception of addictiveness, the gateway drug myth and the counterculture that has been attached to it. 

But the most predominant issue in its proscription is the racial profiling of ethnic minority users and the stigmatic agenda to associate the drug with crime and how it influences it.

David A. Guba Jr., an educator and cannabis historian, delves into this subject in his book Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France.  From 18th century colonial laws to the brief musings of Emmanuel Macron’s drug reform, Guba sheds light on the systematic racism interwoven within France’s colonial past that still ripples into the 21st century.  The foundation of France’s drug laws today exist out of procrastination, deferring acknowledgement of two centuries of misinformation fuelled by racist notions and control.

The rise and fall of France’s history of cannabis consumption is explored from the initial French discovery of hashish during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, to France becoming the epicentre of hashish medicalisation, to the criminalisation of hashish in French Algeria.  The book investigates how French colonial proscriptions focused on the argument that the consumption of hashish produced threats to the social order of France.  Muslim North Africans were specifically labelled with this state-sponsored stigma.  The book continues into the 1830s and 1840s where French pharmacists and physicians began “taming” the drug to implement it within the homoeopathic treatment of epidemic diseases and mental illnesses.

As Guba writes, the main fear from the French government was what recreational opioid use could do to society, and thus began their efforts to prohibit drugs.  French colonisation generated a multicultural society in which hash was predominately consumed by those the state was most biased against.  The quest for social order continued with the assimilation of Arab and Asian minorities, forcing them to abandon their indigenous cultures in favour of French values, with antagonism for any whose cultural ways infringed upon such values.  Minorities’ use of hashish resulted in the drug being metamorphosed into an “oriental monster” in the minds of the French people.  Like today, hashish was portrayed as a gateway to violent behaviour.  Depictions of non-Westerns were seen as a race apart, often associating fanatical violence with Muslims, who were seen to turn people into murderers.

Guba examines the comparison of a new drug culture with foreign invasion, and how student rebellion followed.  The connection of drug abuse and anti-state violence became a talking point for French colonialists, stereotyping hashish users as Arab assassins.  Arab-Muslim communities became systematically targeted by authorities, leading to the mass incarceration of ethnic and religious minorities, who are often stopped and searched as part of France’s nationalistic prohibition measures.

At the turn of the 21st century, marijuana legislation reform began to gain momentum.  Various states in the U.S legalised cannabis with E.U reform in various jurisdictions all brought about due to tax revenues and prevailing attitudes from newly discovered data correcting the misconceptions of its use.  For countries that still criminalise cannabis, proscription had been loosened to stimulate medical research with mass studies on THC.  As Guba concludes, France continues to push against the progress the Western world has made by hosting some of the strictest anti-drug laws and harshest penalties in Europe.  While there is some level of intention to reform such archaic laws, the French government are dragging their heels due to two centuries of drug-related demagoguery and a reluctance from modern conservatives.

Guba outlines how France has the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Europe, yet they enforce the most repressive anti-drug laws.  At one point, France served as the epicentre of a global movement to medicalise hashish in the treatment of a litany of diseases.  Unfortunately, misdiagnosis, prescribing errors and inconsistent dosages fuelled the argument against its efficacy.

French physicians, most notably Emile-Louis Bertherand, a medical expert in Algeria’s criminal court, provided publications which became key pieces of evidence in debates in the 20th century that led to the prohibition laws France operates under today.  All of this stemmed from 19th century authoritative fearmongering, where Muslim North Africans were targeted as the proprietors of anti-social behaviour due to consumption of hashish.  Pharmacists continued to butt heads in medical journals on cannabis opinion while lies about hashish induced insanity spread in North African publications. The association of violent behaviour with hashish was to become a foundation for “taming” its use by French physicians and pharmacists throughout the 1830s and 1840s. 

By the 1850s, its usage in combating insanity, cholera and the plague was deemed ineffective and medical academics began to distance themselves from the drug.  However, the parable of hashish instilling violent tendencies in people was carried on to the forefront of the discussion, paving the way in the 1860s for authorities to frame mental illness, violence, and anti-state resistance as commodities of hashish use.  This became systemised within French colonial medicine, further becoming law by the end of the decade.  Today, France looks to reform these archaic laws to reflect the modern Western world’s view of the drug as many are moving towards legalisation or at the very least, decriminalisation.  These new attitudes along with the rise of drug-related incarceration have led the country to finally address their history with the drug. 

David Guba’s Taming Cannabis explores every facet of colonial France’s authoritative dominance and xenophobic policies to drive a narrative of social obedience and control.  More than ever, the untold history of cannabis legislation in France is needed to understand how cannabis in the Western world has been vilified to profile ethnic and religious minorities.  A major step in marijuana legislation comes from our understanding of the historical narratives that totalitarian regimes restrained cannabis with.  The history of governments hellbent on restricting anything deemed to offset the natural values and traditions of their respective countries is more accessible than ever as more and more people discover for themselves the history of cannabis in the western world. 

While most cannabis users familiarise themselves with their own country’s narrative of the drug, we must continue to educate ourselves on how the western world discovered marijuana and its eventual development in medical and recreational circles.  To only examine our history with cannabis is to approach the topic from a keyhole of perspective.  With Taming History, Guba presents a fascinatingly detailed look into France’s colonial past from the first anti-cannabis laws, to the treatment of mental illness to the fall of medicalised hashish driven by the racialised taboos currently enforcing Frances’ anti-drug policies.  Taming Cannabis is one of the most prolific pieces on the history of cannabis, the largely untold story of France’s marijuana prohibition.  I heavily recommend it to everyone interested in learning the history of cannabis as well as those interested in the history of autocratic control and the effects that stem from it.

Author’s Website: https://www.djguba.com/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Cannabis-Nineteenth-Century-Intoxicating-Histories/dp/022800120X

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/taming-cannabis-david-a-guba-jr/book/9780228001201.html

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/taming-cannabis-david-a-guba/1134504152