Drug Policy in Ireland

David O’Sullivan is a masters student studying Journalism in Dublin City University. In this 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.

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