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. 









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