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.
1 TD Gino Kenny’s Who Is My TD information page can be accessed here:
2 The People Before Profit information page on Wikipedia:
3 Natalie O’Regan‘s Green Lens interview can be read here:
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: