Cannabis & COVID-19

Nicholas looks into the effects COVID-19 restrictions has had on cannabis use and how the plant could possibly be used to combat the virus itself.

March 2020 saw the world change for the worse with the introduction of lockdown restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid 19. As a result, more people have isolated themselves from others than ever before. The effects isolation has had on people started to appear with certain behaviours such as overeating, insomnia, getting distracted easily when working from home etc. One effect the lockdown has had on cannabis users is the amount they smoke. Studies show that there has been a significant increase in self-reported isolation and loneliness in large portions of the population.

This is concerning given that isolation and loneliness usually treated by increased cannabis use.[i] In light of “stay-at-home” measures and requirements for social and physical distancing and quarantines for those travelling, it is not surprising that many are turning to cannabis to cope with the stress that comes from isolation. This is not exclusive to cannabis though, the increase in alcohol consumption has gotten considerably higher to cope with the negative effects of social distancing and lack of socialising.

With the recent level 5 lockdown restrictions, more research should be conducted into understanding the impact of self-isolation and the coping motives behind related drug use. This is critical for planning necessary public health supports. While the public health measures are aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19, it has had unintended negative consequences. In an effort to avert the spread of the virus, it has inadvertently created additional problems in the form of this increased substance use. Cannabis users engaging with the rules and limiting contact with people were 20% more likely to increase their consumption of cannabis.

The increase in alcohol sales has demonstrated the reliance on substances to cope during times of stress, depression, or psychological distress due to limited access to typical sources of reinforcement. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) reported that approximately 1 in 5 individuals who consumed alcohol reported increases in alcohol consumption relative to the period before the pandemic. A survey conducted in the Netherlands showed that during the lockdown, habitual users increased their cannabis consumption in both frequency and quantity.

Of the respondents, 41.3% reported that they had increased their consumption, while 49.4% used it as often as before and only 2.8% stopped temporarily.[ii] The psychological effects of coronavirus have taken hold and the public health service needs to look more into the prevention of substance abuse during times of anxiety. Despite the negative effects that occur when abusing cannabis, research has been carried out into how cannabis could even treat Covid-19. Cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) have a history of safe use and contain numerous properties which can be beneficial in treating certain medical symptoms.

CBD has anti-inflammatory properties that serve to reduce pain and anxiety. In tandem with other cannabinoids and clinical intervention, CBD has a lot of potential to treat the symptoms of viruses such as Covid-19. As of 2021, verifiable research linking cannabinoids with the successful prevention of COVID-19 is limited, though analyses of the virus have spread light on the phenomenon of cytokine storm syndrome. Cytokines are a broad and loose category of small proteins important in cell-to-cell communication. Cytokine storm syndrome is where too many cytokine proteins are released into the body to which they attack the lungs and overwhelm the immune system with hyperinflammation. Early evidence has shown CBD and THC may very well be helpful in the treatment of patients whose bodies’ inflammatory response has become pathogenic.[iii]

The research to date has focused on the ability of cannabinoids to lower the immune system’s response without repressing it. A cannabis research and development firm based in Israel, CannaSoul Analytics, indicates that the combination of terpenes and cannabinoids used is up to two times more effective than other remedies, though their study has yet to be peer-reviewed. Another approach being investigated is the development of potential cell therapy treatment which uses CBD-loaded exosomes to treat COVID-19 patients. This treatment aims to target both central nervous system indications and the coronavirus. CBD-loaded exosomes hold the potential to provide a highly synergistic effect of anti-inflammatory properties by targeting specific damaged organs such as infected lung cells.

The complexity of application processes and the difficulty of sourcing cannabis curbs research into the medicinal potential of cannabis. In Australia, using CBD only in research activities requires an academic institution to apply for a special licence to allow it to obtain and store the cannabinoid, despite it having no psychoactive properties. The pandemic will continue until the end of the year if we are to be optimistic and this will certainly not be the last novel coronavirus we experience in our lifetime. Therefore, it is imperative that governments allow the studying of potential alternative medicine such as cannabis within research institutions and private laboratories.

References:

[i] https://psyarxiv.com/zvs9f/

[ii] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.601653/full

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2828614/

Drug Policy in Ireland

David O’Sullivan is a masters student studying Journalism in Dublin City University. In his debut piece for The Green Lens, David provides a concise look into the recent developments of cannabis in Ireland and what lies in the future for Irish drug policies. A believer in harm reduction, David asserts that cannabis reform will shift focus from the criminalisation of cannabis usage to rehabilitating those with addiction issues.

Ireland is stuck in the past in many things, including its relationship towards weed. However, recent efforts to reform cannabis legislation mean the country is slowly accepting how the plant could help medically, economically and judicially. On the 14th of December, 2020, Irish politician Gino Kenny of People Before Profit announced his party would propose a bill to end the prohibition of cannabis in Ireland. This is not the first time this kind of bill will be proposed to the Irish government. In 2013, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan’s bill to legalise cannabis in Ireland lost eight votes to one hundred and eleven. Kenny believes that the public perception of cannabis in Ireland has changed over the last few years as people recognize its benefits. This means a bill could find more success a second time around. However, he says that the issue has stalled over the last ten months due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and that Ireland is still “five to seven years” away from fully legalised, recreational cannabis.

He would like to see a model of legal cannabis similar to Uruguay’s in relation to how cannabis is sold and state controlled. Kenny says there is lots of stigma attached to cannabis use in Ireland, despite the fact users are still able to lead fruitful lives. Kenny finds that there is a stereotype that “someone who uses cannabis does not have a job and is involved with criminality. This is not the case.” The announcement has been met with some controversy. In response to Kenny, Eamon Ryan, leader of The Green Party in Ireland, said that the country was not ready to legalise cannabis next year. When asked to clarify, he was unable to comment. In June 2019, former Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that a Medical Cannabis Access Programme was being set up on a pilot basis of five years to prescribe medicine to patients with certain conditions. Irish activists, such as Nicole Lonergan of Cork Cannabis Activist Network, are critical of the programme.

Not a single patient has been prescribed actual cannabis under it to date despite its benefits. Instead, they can be prescribed CBD oils. The products include Aurora High CBD Oil Drops, Tilray Oral Solution and CannEpil. CBD oils are extracted from cannabis but do not contain the chemical component THC. CBD and THC share many of the same medical benefits, though THC produces a high which CBD does not. This means some users may prefer CBD oils to prevent an unwanted psychoactive effect of cannabis use. Patients on the programme were forced to travel to the Netherlands to pick up medicine which ultimately contributed to making the programme inaccessible. During the pandemic, many of these patients could not travel to get their medicine. On the 14th of December 2020, Irish Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced that a delivery service would be implemented to transport the necessary medication to programme participants.

At the moment patients with multiple sclerosis, vomiting associated with chemotherapy or who are severely epileptic and resistant to treatment can take part in the medicinal cannabis programme. However, there are other illnesses which could benefit from cannabis use including liver cancer, ulcers, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Aside from the medicinal advantages, Ireland could benefit in several other important ways from legalising cannabis. One important aspect of legalised cannabis would be fewer people entering the Irish justice system and the resources that go into criminalising these people could instead be allocated to another state programme. Natalie O’Regan is an Irish legal researcher in drug policy reform, harm reduction and cannabis. According to O’Regan, nearly 70% of all drug incidents were for personal possession in 2019. Out of these incidents, approximately 600 were incarcerated. She says that as cannabis is the most widely used drug in Ireland, it follows that a large number of these cases were on cannabis related charges.

According to The Irish Central Statistics Office, over 22,000 controlled drug offences were made in the country in 2020. This represents a growth of 13.5% relative to the previous year. If cannabis were to be legalised then not only could this number decrease, but less people could end up imprisoned. On the 16th December 2020, cannabis was introduced into the Irish adult caution scheme. This means that a person caught with cannabis for personal use may no longer face criminalisation but instead a fine. This is based on the arresting police officer’s discretion, an admission of guilt and whether it is a first time offence. Therefore, the threat of criminalisation still remains. Peter Grinspoon MD is an author, physician and a teacher at Harvard Medical School. He is the son of Lester Grinspoon, a leading reformer of American cannabis legislation during the twentieth century. In his own words, he is a “second generation cannabis activist”. He believes that ultimately the criminal consequences of using cannabis are worse than any possible physical side effects. A criminal conviction for cannabis possession could affect your employment, access to housing and family life in many countries.

Grinspoon says that there are numerous health benefits to cannabis use including relieving insomnia, anxiety, pain, spasticity, nausea and epilepsy. However, there are also risks attached with it. Like any substance, it is possible to become habitually dependent on cannabis. However, this study by The Mayo Clinic shows cannabis could be less addictive than alcohol, cocaine, heroin and nicotine. Another consequence of cannabis use could come from weaning off after heavy usage. The withdrawal period can cause irritability or difficulty eating and sleeping and can take up to a week to recover from. Legalising cannabis would result in regulated, taxed, safer cannabis usage. Dr. Grinspoon says that many of the risks attached to cannabis usage in countries where cannabis is illegal, such as anxiety, are the side effect of unregulated, black market sales. If the drug is legalised, it means it can be grown without fungus or pesticides and consumers will be able to know exactly what is in their cannabis, including THC levels, to prevent an uncomfortable high.

On the other hand, legalising cannabis could have less effect than anticipated. Forbes describe how despite cannabis being legal in places such as California, the black market trade continues. This is due to high government taxes and limited dispensaries which encourage customers to turn to cheaper, more accessible, illicit vendors. Global legal cannabis sales last year were about $12.2 billion and could be worth $50 billion by 2029. Legalising cannabis could provide the Irish government with vast sums of money in tax revenue. Back in 2013 when he proposed the initial bill to legalise cannabis in Ireland, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan estimated that cannabis could generate up to €300 million in tax revenue and freeing up of resources. As more people use the drug, this number could increase.

The money the government received through cannabis taxation could be used to tackle important issues crippling many in Ireland such as housing, drug rehabilitation and the oncoming fallout from COVID-19. The global trend shows that cannabis use is becoming more widespread and less stigmatised. Though there are minor drawbacks to legalising cannabis, they are outweighed by the positives. The benefits to public health, economy and justice are undeniable and the continuation of Irish prohibition will cause nothing but harm. Unfair vilification of cannabis use over the last few decades has affected an untold number of Irish lives and one can only hope that in the future this can be rectified.

As a younger generation comes into maturity, efforts must be continued to protect the vulnerable. Continuing prohibition trivializes serious problems facing the Irish population as we, hopefully, move into a world with mass COVID-19 vaccination. The Irish government seems to recognize this through the acceptance of cannabis in a medicinal capacity along with the introduction of lighter punishments, yet continue to operate in an outdated and uninformed manner when it comes to greater legalisation.

Ireland has been stuck in the past and it is time to catch up. The march is slow, but in Ireland the future is green.

Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell at ‘The Case For Ending Cannabis Prohibition in Ireland’ | 01.02.2021

Doctor Órfhlaith Campbell was a guest speaker at 1TD Gino Kenny’s online talk on Monday, ‘The Case For Ending Cannabis Prohibition in Ireland’. The following text has been adapted from the 2People Before Profit live stream for the purpose of clarity. This text is far from all that was said by Dr. Campbell at the talk. She was accompanied (virtually) by the host Mr. Kenny, MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Dr. Garrett McGovern, Gerard Roe and 3Natalie O’Regan.

My name is 4Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell. I am a historian of Irish prohibition. I am currently a wellbeing worker for young people with the 5Simon Community in Belfast and I am a drug reform activist. But aside from all of my academic and professional links to drug reform at the minute, I also lived in Vancouver, where they changed from the prohibition of cannabis to legalisation. I support the medicinal use of cannabis and the recreational use. And it was a bit of a culture shock coming back to Ireland and realising how intense the stigma still is. So I’m delighted and I hope this is the first of many conversations going out there to normalise the conversation.

I think we need to stop or get over the fear of saying that we support legalisation of all drugs. At this point prohibition has to go, prohibition is the problem. Decriminalisation is good because it helps stop criminalising people but it’s only getting us halfway there, the black market still exists, it has to go for full legalisation. So I would say yes, there is a case for ending prohibition and it’s not only cannabis prohibition. Although it is cannabis prohibition that we need to start now in Ireland. But in order to be able to do this successfully, we have to understand what prohibition is.

The war on drugs that we have now is a symptom of the prohibitionist ideology that a drug-free world is attainable. The original temperance and prohibition movement of the 19th century is the cause of that symptom. None of it is based on any medical or scientific research whatsoever and it is nothing but a classist and racist system that is designed to oppress. It simply has to go. Prohibition created a temperance movement which began in America in 1826 and that rapidly transitioned to right here in Belfast in 1829. The Reverend John Edgar poured his family stash of whiskey out on the street and the campaign for the destruction of the drink trade is started here in Ireland.

By the time the UK and Ireland enact cannabis and other drug prohibition later in the 20th century we’re completely displaced from our prohibition history and we came to believe at that point that prohibition was only something that happened in America in the ‘20s and it caused flapper skirts and speak-easys, but that was it. Essentially we had, and for the most part still have forgotten that we asked the prohib question in Ireland. Doctor Shane Butler, when talking about 20th century drug policies in Ireland in 1991, said: “It would not be accurate to say that alternative perspectives were rejected by Irish policy makers. There is no evidence to support that it was ever discussed at any level.

Policy makers have been largely unaware of it and believed that the American ideas of the need for an all-out war on drugs were taken as sub evident and sufficient.” That’s not good enough. The American war on drugs is a racist system that was used to control, criminalise and oppress. America used its global power throughout the 20th century to force member States of the UN into submission and we should not have prohibition. Prohibition was contested here for almost a century. There was much pushback against the idea that there was something morally wrong with the recreational drink. And there was opposition from big business and trade unionists, who opposed the destruction of the trade. 

Irish temperance and prohibition is also the context in which 6James Connolly grew up. Socialists like Connolly were fundamentally opposed to prohibition, as it scapegoated alcohol for all the horrors coming from the developing system of capitalism. And it’s important to remember that Connolly himself was a total abstainer, but he did not believe that he had the right to force others to live how he chose. Essentially prohibition had its roots in attempting to control the working class, so they’d build a more sober and reliable workforce to build the capitalist system. And the toll that that system took in the bodies and minds, in terms of long working hours, dangerous working conditions, poor living conditions and lack of nutrition, would’ve caused an unprecedented level of trauma that could’ve led to problematic substance use. 

But instead of seeing the toll that the system was taking on the working class, the working class was gaslit into believing that all social issues would disappear if they could just control their inherent weakness for alcohol. So, it wasn’t the system doing it to them, it was them doing it to themselves. So when you look back and you think of James Connolly sitting in a pub with his soft drink, talking to his working class comrades with their substance of choice, really that was an intentional two fingers up at temperance and prohibitionists, who for the most part he thought were deluded. Prohibition was a classist system based on a Victorian ideology obsessed with self-control. But people continued to consume alcohol throughout the 19th and 20th century, tormenting total abstainers who thought that everyone could be convinced to stop drinking.

Prohibition came about as a way to force those who did not listen into submission and there was a desire to control those who could not be convinced to live by prohibitionists’ standards and codes of behaviour. This was never denied, nor was the attempt to enforce a middle class code of behaviour onto the working class, who they viewed as morally and intellectually weaker. The difference between the original prohibition movement and the war on drugs is that the original prohibition movement focused on easing reasons for demand. So this is where we get coffee houses from, in Ireland. They were started here as an alternative to the pub.

But the supply-focused war on drugs has cut out all of that research and it’s cut out the provision of alternatives. And therefore it’s cut out effective methods of prevention and recovery, as it’s developed supply reduction and total abstinence as the only and ultimate goals. This is even more problematic now, as supply-reduction has for the most part just moved into crime-reduction. And we have the Guards and the PSNI. We are showboating seizures, despite the scientific evidence that shows that this does nothing but ignite turf war, increase violence, increase price, and put our most vulnerable community members at increased risk of exploitation.

So, we have this wealth of historical research here in Ireland. And I believe that it’s vital that we look back and take that all into consideration. That will enable us to meet our needs better. As opposed to supporting a system that was built on bias and discrimination against working class immigrant societies and communities of colour, as developed by America in the 20th century. And which continues to be the lynchpin which enables police brutality, like we’ve seen in the Black Lives Matter movements, both in America and in Ireland recently. So now at this point, 167 years after prohibition was first mentioned on this island, we can safely say that it has been tried every which way possible. It does not work.

It’s sending the market underground, it’s keeping it in the hands of organised crime gangs and it is leading to contaminated supply overlooking market regulation. Prohibition is leading to the criminalisation and stigmatisation of young men and women on this island. It’s blocking them from homes, houses, families, treatment services, travel opportunities, to name a few. But it is not simply that it doesn’t work. Prohibition is an unjust and unbiased law that is placing restrictions on our recreational, medicinal freedoms. And it’s therefore placing restrictions on our civil rights.

Cannabis use is a reality, drug use is a reality and the current prohibition system that denies that reality is not fit for purpose. It never was, it never will be and it has to be reformed now.

References:

1 TD Gino Kenny’s Who Is My TD information page can be accessed here:

https://www.whoismytd.com/person/gino-kenny 

2 The People Before Profit information page on Wikipedia:

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

3 Natalie O’Regan‘s Green Lens interview can be read here:

https://greenlensblog.com/2020/11/16/natalie-oregan-3pm-cork-ireland-01-11-2020/

4 Last year’s Green Lens interview with Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell can be read here: https://bit.ly/3zCS0Kn

5 The Simon Community NI website can be found here: https://www.simoncommunity.org/ 

6 More information on the influential Irish republican and socialist, James Connolly:

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

Are We There Yet? – Stereotypes of Cannabis

Nicholas looks into the stereotypes cannabis users face and how these perpetrate stigmas for consuming cannabis. The ramifications of misinformation continues to benefit critics of cannabis but we are starting to see these untruths fall to the way side.

Cannabis users face a multitude of stigmas stemming from the stereotypes society has cultivated through propaganda.  The belief that cannabis makes you lazy, lethargic and more likely to consume illicit drugs, has been the main talking points for critics of cannabis, heavily suggesting its legalisation will incur severe consequences for a productive society.  These beliefs appear to have been on the decline, as extensive studies reveal how successful cannabis is in treating a variety of medical conditions. There has also been a steadily documented change in public perceptions. 

The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs carried out a study where over 1,000 participants who take legal marijuana were evaluated.  65% of the respondents said they took cannabis for pain treatment and 80% found cannabis to be helpful with other ailments.  Of the 1,000 subjects, 82% reduced or removed consumption of over-the-counter medication and 88% stated they were able to eliminate taking opioid painkillers entirely.  Cannabis was found to help 74% of respondents with their sleep issues, further demonstrating that insomnia and chronic pain are two of the most prevalent medical conditions that adults suffer from and medicinal cannabis has proven to be of major benefit in treating these afflictions without unnecessary side effects.[1]   The therapeutic qualities of cannabis have harnessed progressive communication as the health of each country’s citizens is imperative to each respective government, laying waste to stereotypes of the drug that kept open discussion from forming for so long.

As research on the plant continues to develop a general collective understanding, stereotypes cultivated through misinformation and propaganda are now being debunked.  The classic depiction of the lazy, unemployed stoner who engages in criminal activity is fuelled by the heavily politicised nature of marijuana reform.  Though studies show that even in the wake of legalisation, these stereotypes are still rampant within conservative news outlets. 

In a report published by consumer insights firm Green Horizons, cannabis consumption is primarily done alone, despite perceptions of it being a party drug. The report outlined that 6 in 10 users consume cannabis unaccompanied, with 87% smoking occasionally by themselves.  The report also found that cannabis users were more likely to be more health-conscious than their counterparts.  While this may be common within the cannabis community, it remains unknown to the public who deem drug users as irresponsible with their wellbeing.  Medicinal cannabis users are said to be “morelikely than recreational users to say that seeking/using natural or holistic remedies and staying informed about topics related to health and wellness play a big role in their life.”  The report notes, “This is consistent with findings from another study, conducted at the University of Colorado – Boulder, which found that cannabis users were exceeding the recommended amount of physical activity in comparison to non-users.”[2]

The reliance on stereotypes to dismiss cannabis benefits has always been an ethical issue.  The most harmful instances of stereotyping originate from racial profiling, where minorities are depicted as the forefront of cannabis culture and therefore, are involved in criminal activity.  The images used by news organisations often negatively depict usage, with more conservative outlets less likely to depict recreational cannabis as normal.  ‘Stock Images’ often showing a delinquent smoking a joint are one of many examples of the media using adverse imagery to reinforce the current representation of cannabis users, despite the prevailing shift in cannabis culture.  The middle classes are engaging in cannabis use more than ever compared to 20 years ago, when it was predominantly consumed by the working class.  This is a change mainstream media outlets are inclined to ignore, as it moves away from the narrative of cannabis usage only occurring within unemployed individuals residing in high crime, low-income environments. 

The most commonly known stereotype is that all cannabis users are unmotivated and lazy. The stoner mentality portrayed in film and television has laid way for the slow thinking, slow responding comedic relief character, often associated with cannabis usage.  In reality, these characteristics do not hold weight. More and more people demonstrate that they can consume cannabis regularly and be successful and motivated.  In some cases, cannabis is shown to help professional athletes in medicinal form.   A study published in 2019 by Colorado University Boulder shed light on cannabis usage and exercise.  Their findings were that 80% of users combine weed with their workout regimen.  8 out of every 10 people in states where cannabis is legal stated they used cannabis shortly before or after exercising with the majority citing cannabis as a motivator in working out or during the workout. [3]

Another common misconception is that cannabis users are uneducated and unsuccessful.  More students are using cannabis to help them with their studies than ever before, from enhancing creativity to reducing anxiety and stress caused by exams and projects in the new remote learning atmosphere.  Cannabis is universally seen as a safer option compared to pharmaceutical drugs commonly used during exam times and periods of study related stress.

As the world moves towards marijuana legalisation, it is up to the media to reinforce or debunk cannabis myths through careful consideration of how to appropriately illustrate the issue.  Media representation influences how audiences draw conclusions about the drug, allowing those who judge the character of the user to continue the stigmatisation of cannabis. 


[1] https://www.healtheuropa.eu/debunking-cannabis-stereotypes/93987/

[2] http://www.greenhorizonsinsights.com/press/

[3] https://www.denverpost.com/2019/04/30/marijuana-workouts-university-of-colorado-study/