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!
1 The Dublin Hemp Museum’s article on Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy:
2 Doctor George Sigerson’s Cannabiculture in Ireland; its Profit & Possibility, via Google Books:
3 Here’s an article on W.B Yeats and cannabis by The Dublin Hemp Museum:
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:
5 More information about Belfast Cannabis Group can be found here:
6 NI Canna Guy interview in Weed World Magazine:
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:
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:
14 An obituary for Lyra McKee, who wrote about what she dubbed the Ceasefire Babies generation: