Seán McCabe at ‘Cannabis: A New Green Deal’ by Uplift

1Seán McCabe is the Executive Manager of 2TASC, the Think Tank for Action on Social Change. In this excerpt, he is introducing a TASC report which was commissioned by 3Uplift, as a guest panelist on their online discussion, Cannabis: A New Green Deal. This discussion was streamed on April 20th of this year. The following extract has been adapted from the live stream for the purposes of clarity and brevity.

Shae Flanagan of Uplift: The team at TASC have worked for months on this comprehensive and balanced report. So without further ado, I’ll hand us over to Seán McCabe from TASC to talk us through the report. Welcome Seán. 

Seán McCabe: Thanks Shae. Like Shae says, I guess this is an overdue report. We’ve been working on it for quite some time at TASC. When Shae initially approached us, the idea was to look at what decriminalisation and de-regulation of cannabis in Ireland would look like. Specifically looking at the social, economic and environmental opportunities that that would bring. So, just before diving into those points, this is really just a whistle-stop tour and as Shae says, there’s quite a bit in the report. I suppose for me it was a journey as well, because I guess I went into it with my own ideas. And when you start peeling down through the substantial amount of evidence that’s out there, it’s quite an interesting journey. The history of cannabis and hemp in Ireland is pretty fascinating. At one point, it was illegal NOT to grow hemp, back as far as 1563. If you had over 60 acres, you had to grow hemp or face a £5 fine.

And then in 1756, it was viewed as a foundation of separate profitable industries, hemp and flax being large exports for Ireland. And then the story of criminalisation in Ireland finds its roots in one man. Bishop Charles Henry Brent’s opposition to opium use in the Philippines during the American military government in the Philippines in the late 1800s, and his passionate dedication to eliminating opium, brought him to chair the first International Opium Commission, a 13-State conference communed by the United States, in 1909. The first (International) Opium Convention then brought about the first international drug control 4treaty in 1912. And it wasn’t until the second Opium Convention, again still being driven by the same Bishop, that we had Egypt push for the addition of hashish to the Convention, as a controlled substance. There was a back and forth, tit for tat, between Egypt and India, where hashish was obviously used as a sacred plant in ceremonies.

So eventually, the Egyptian argument prevailed. It’s interesting to go back and read Dáil conversations in the Irish Free State, relating to the international convention and their ratifying of it. It was very much a question of: “Well, we don’t seem to have any drug issues in Ireland. But we should probably do this to stay in the good books of the global community.” So it wasn’t until 1968 that we saw the first reference to cannabis in Dáil Éireann. And it was around that time we brought a substitute teacher from California over to explain to a Dáil committee the dangers of cannabis as a gateway drug. Of course, (it’s) an allegation which doesn’t really hold up to any 5scrutiny. And in 1977, cannabis was placed in a separate legal category from other narcotics. We’ve had other Acts that pertain to cannabis in the meantime. But the most significant (Act) since (then) has been the Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme (MCAP).

The current view beyond the Act, which has been quietly welcomed (except there’s been a desire to see it expanded obviously), is that cannabis and its derivatives are currently still Schedule 1 drugs and considered to have no medicinal and scientific value and thus are considered illegal. So, if we look quickly at the political landscape as well, I think it’s quite interesting. Because taking a look at the manifestos of the political parties, both in government and in opposition currently; the Green Party had probably the most progressive manifesto, in terms of cannabis. They were looking for rescheduling and decriminalisation for small quantities of products or plants, and a compassionate approach to drug use in general. Fianna Fáil, who are silent on cannabis… the language in their manifesto was very akin to maybe what you would see in the ‘60s or ‘70s in Ireland, in terms of a law and order approach to drugs.

And Fine Gael were silent on cannabis in their manifesto. The Labour Party were silent on cannabis, Sinn Féin were silent on cannabis. People Before Profit did highlight the Party’s record of pushing legislation on access and Social Democrats stated their support for medicinal cannabis. Significantly I think, in January 2019, The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted to recognise the medicinal use of cannabis for the first time, and removed it from their list of dangerous drugs. So that was a very significant global moment. Just to run (through the rest of my agenda) then, I’m gonna look at social, environmental and economic considerations very quickly. And then there’s many more people who have valuable things to say about this, so I’ll get off the stage. First of all, in terms of public health. Looking at health impacts, I suppose many people here would be aware that cannabis has a significantly lesser impact than some legal drugs in Ireland – looking at tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption specifically.

But then, furthermore, we were aware of the benefits. So what we tried to do as part of the research was look at where there was strong evidence linking cannabis to positive health outcomes. So there is conclusive evidence out there for use in chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and patient-reported Multiple Sclerosis spasticity. Then there’s moderate benefits in terms of sleep outcomes, and limited benefits on a number of health conditions, including anxiety and stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. In terms of health concerns, I think it’s important not to brush over these. There is significant evidence for a doubling of Schizophrenia risk with daily use of cannabis. And also, daily use gives way to a large risk in terms of dependence. That and bronchitis, I guess, are the key issues that stand out in terms of the peer-reviewed studies on health risks. And the social cost; I guess everyone here would be acutely aware of the current criminalisation of cannabis, perpetuating existing socioeconomic disadvantage, marginalising users.

And there are plenty of examples of criminal records leading to lives which jump from unemployment to poverty and then homelessness, particularly in a situation where we have a housing crisis like we do. And then there’s the issue that people who have formally used drugs are really not regularly consulted in the design or implementation of policies. I think this is pretty significant in terms of the amount of arrests due to seizures related to personal use, and what that means in terms of policing resources in this country, but then also the potential risks of criminal records. We could obviously go into that in more detail in the conversations. I just wanted to look at environmental considerations really quickly. There’s a significant sequestration potential from growing hemp. I presume again, most people on this call would be aware of that. 6Fifteen tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, that’s quite remarkable really.

It’s significantly more than agri-forest models, which are being promoted as a potential land use solution to the climate crisis. There is however, a pretty pervasive myth that we could grow a load of hemp on our peatlands. That may not be the case, although further research will be required. It’s not necessarily going to yield healthy plants, growing hemp on peat. Studies in Russia have seemed to indicate that through supplemental application of inputs, you can grow healthy hemp plants, but it’s debatable if the use of those inputs would lead us to a situation where we would be having an environmentally-positive impact. Again, further work would be required to understand that. Then there’s a number of barriers. We spoke to a number of interviewees as part of this process, who are much closer to hemp farming than I would be.

And two points that really stood out in all of the conversations were just the lack of infrastructure, particularly (the lack of) a decortication plant and then the lack of consistency in the THC limits that we use in terms of our laws. An Garda Síochána obviously have the limit of 0%. We’ve seen the impact of that recently on businesses. And The Department of Agriculture has the limit of 0.2% that goes along with the EU, so there’s clearly a need for harmonisation there, urgently. Quickly on the economic considerations, ‘cause I’ve been talking for quite a while now, there is quite significant potential from cannabis tax, although I think we haven’t seen the full picture to this yet. There are estimations for where the cannabis market will go globally, varying wildly I would say, from about 50 billion up to 166 billion, over the course of the next decade.

7Prohibition Partners estimate that the Irish cannabis sector could be worth 1 billion. That would make the market similar to what we’ve seen develop in Colorado, a State of a similar size to Ireland, where cannabis has been legal since 2014. What’s interesting about Colorado is their tax is significantly lower than our VAT and substantially lower than how we tax tobacco currently, for example. So, the potential revenue income for Ireland could be greater than the 135 million that Colorado took in in 2015, off their 1 billion worth of sales. And obviously cannabis tax could be used for other things, preventing harmful behaviour and correcting markets similarly. There is a word of warning with this however, in that if you were to pin your entire motivation for decriminalisation on the potential economic benefits, it might be a red herring. Because it’s hard sometimes to derive a large profit from something that anyone can grow. And so we’ve seen the markets soar in Canada and then subsequently drop to being a fraction of what they initially were.

There are a lot of moving pieces here, with the market finding a level, the impact of the pandemic, and a potential excessive initial evaluation – it would need to be watched to see where things go in the aftermath of the pandemic. And finally, the report poses the question of how we roll out a cannabis sector in Ireland, if we were to embrace it. And this is my own hobby horse, which is the idea that it could be used as a catalyst, or as an element of community-led, local wealth-building. Particularly looking at cooperatively owned farms or cooperatively owned dispensaries, or the likes. So there would be opportunities there that would be worth exploring. As Shae said, this is not a finished project. We still have a little bit of work to do, but it’s been a pleasure working with Uplift on this and I’m happy to take any questions. But I know there are other panelists, and it would be important to hand it over to them now. So, thanks for your time and it was a pleasure talking to you.

References

1 Seán McCabe’s details can be found on this page – https://www.tasc.ie/about/staff.html/ 

2 The TASC website can be accessed here – https://www.tasc.ie/

3 The Uplift website can be accessed here – https://www.uplift.ie/

4 More about this treaty can be read here –

https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/the-1912-hague-international-opium-convention.html 

5 Check out Nicholas’ article, Cannabis & The Gateway Drug Narrative

https://greenlensblog.com/2020/10/07/cannabis-the-gateway-drug-narrative/ 

6 See the following Agriland article for more on this –

https://www.agriland.ie/farming-news/hemp-can-sequester-15t-of-carbon-per-hectare/

 7 This market value estimate is mentioned in the following Irish Times article –

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/health-pharma/irish-led-legal-cannabis-firm-looks-to-ipo-to-establish-clinic-network-1.3819569

* The full recording of this Uplift panel discussion, Cannabis: A New Green Deal, can be seen here – https://bit.ly/3fMje97 

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