Laura | 15.06.2021

Laura suffers with chronic depression, anxiety, insomnia and back pain, which she was prescribed Valium for ten years ago. She says she hasn’t ‘popped’ a Valium since a few years ago, when she lived in Canada and had access to medical cannabis.

Twitter / Instagram: @ucancallmelola

Can you please outline your relationship with alcohol in the past and why it was that you decided to stop?

I used to think of my relationship with alcohol as pretty typical, but now I can see it was more sinister than that. It started with the ‘normal’ teenage experience of being around fourteen years old and scheming ways to get cans of cider or a naggin of vodka in a park on the weekends, but it grew into something somewhat crippling socially. I felt as though I needed it to be social, genuinely like it was some sort of armour to put on before going out or some magic drink that made me care less about things and pretend to be ‘grand’. Now, with the benefit of age and objectivity, I can see that I was self-medicating my well-established mental health issues in the only way I knew how – the same way generations before us did, which has been culturally normalised for us. I was definitely abusing it. I was regularly drinking alone in the evenings while at home watching TV. A bottle of wine after work at (the age of) nineteen was about standard. Even before then, I used to secretly take a few shots of rum or vodka before going out to my friends as a teen. Not that I told anyone. It was a problem. I stopped drinking at about 26, four years ago.

You once compared the damage alcohol can do to how harmless cannabis is in comparison. You said: “No one smokes themselves into requiring their stomach pumped at Beaumont (hospital) on a Saturday. No one smokes a joint and starts a fight at a party. But “social drinkers” clog up A&E when bars and pubs are open as normal.” Why do you think this cognitive dissonance persists in Ireland about alcohol?

I think that we have been passing down broken ideas and unrealistic rules between our generations. Our cultural and social norms are super influential, of course, but we model ourselves on what has been modelled to us at home first and we internalise our caregivers’ behaviours before we even know we’re doing this. I believe that our previous generations lived in eras of shame and mortification over any (social acknowledgements of) mental health problems, illnesses, addictions and disorders. These generations also lived in times of suppression of information and emotional control under a corrupt church and a conservative government, intent on parroting the 1USA’s War on Drugs propaganda. In short, they lived in the dark and are now terrified of this new information and distrustful of it all. It’s come as a total shock in comparison to the information of the world that they grew up with. All they know is ‘booze is okay and everyone does it’ and no one calls it a drug, so its damaging effects are ignored. 

I’m extremely hopeful that this is a statement on Ireland’s dissolving cognitive dissonance, however. I don’t believe that we face the same set of challenges that they faced. Our access to fast, good information is not something that was available to previous generations. We watched 9/11 on our TV screens as it happened; a different country, a news event in real time. When my father was the age I was in 2001, his house in Castleknock burned down…and that made the newspapers, the next day. Kids can Google for their own information now, but forty years ago, you might need to go to the local library and hope they had an encyclopedia that would answer your kids’ question… either that or guess, and likely pass along faulty advice or answers. We have so much more information that I don’t believe we can continue to hold such contradicting beliefs about a person’s right to drink, smoke, consume substances or the right to alter one’s consciousness.

You said that cannabis was a “huge help with chronic depression & anxiety” and that it has helped your back pain more effectively than your long term Valium prescription. It has also helped you to combat issues with food & insomnia. What beneficial effects do you get from weed?

For me, weed functions as a muscle relaxant for my back pain, an anti-anxiety support and to help with the symptoms of panic attacks if or when they occur, to help me to eat when my nausea is in flare up, to help me sleep when my insomnia is active. All of these effects are instrumental to my being able to cope with and heal my mental health issues and deal with past traumas. It’s such a huge help and it doesn’t have the side effects that I was getting from my antidepressants or Valium prescriptions. 

When you first started using cannabis, did you wean yourself off Valium or stop all together? 

Well, I didn’t use the Valium often enough to require weaning off it. There’s a genetic history of addiction in my family and so I was too scared to take the prescription regularly enough to become in any way reliant on it. Instead, I self medicated by drinking most nights to help me with pain, sleep and to dissociate from it all. Of course, I couldn’t see at the time that instead of avoiding a substance abuse situation like I thought I was doing, I was just doubling up the speed of my alcohol abuse. So when I received my first batch of medical cannabis, it was like opening up the cover of a new book. I don’t feel like I’ve lost or given up anything. I felt like I upgraded the efficiency of my medication. Same with the drink. All of a sudden, I had absolutely no desire for it any more. Now all I miss is the variety of flavours alcohol comes in. I’m pretty sick of Coke or Club Orange as my only beverage options most places, but that is honestly the biggest personal drawback for me in the change over.

Have you experienced any side effects since switching from Diazepam to cannabis?

Other than the above mentioned, before smoking any weed I was suffering in a number of ways. When I began smoking, first it was for my back pain, but soon I noticed a sizeable shift in my mental and emotional strength and ability to look internally at things clearly where I had never been able to before. I was suddenly becoming more aware of myself, my traumas, my triggers and it calmed my chaotic, anxiety-ridden thoughts so that I was finally able to admit to myself that I was unwell, had been unwell for quite a while and desperately needed the help of a mental health practitioner to get back to a healthy place. It sounds hokey and woo woo, but it facilitated the mental and emotional processing I needed to see clearly and care about myself enough to get help. Diazepam made me spaced out, guilty and ashamed, drained and headache-y for two days after use, and unable to drive or operate heavy machinery. I guess the heavy machinery thing is the only unchanged side effect.

Would you recommend those similar to you to make the switch, or do you feel it’s a personal decision to make? 

I think that it’s definitely a personal decision regardless, and that someone should be as informed and comfortable as possible. I do think it should be an option for everyone to try, but that everyone’s reactions are a little different and based solely on the individual. Cannabis won’t work perfectly for everyone, just like every antidepressant won’t work for everyone or why some people can’t drink certain drinks without getting aggressive or blacking out. Our individual body chemistry obviously plays a huge part. I do think that a natural option is a good one to have on the list of options that should be available for adults to explore and for mental health professionals with the correct information and experience to recommend. The best thing anyone can do is be as informed as possible.

How were your experiences with cannabis in Canada and how did they compare with using cannabis in Ireland?

Night and day. There is no comparison. Trying to buy some dried flower buds in a little sandwich bag shouldn’t feel like an arms deal with the ‘Ra, but unfortunately it does. We like to order CBD products from 2Little Collins dispensary instead, and also have some friends who grow their own plants and will send some love our way when they have spare.

When did you first become interested in cannabis?

Just before moving to Canada. They had recently legalised, so I wanted to be informed before arriving there and not be completely ignorant of the situation.

Do you know a lot of people who use cannabis?

More than I could count for you. It’s not uncommon, just semi unspoken.

What are your thoughts on Irish prohibition laws surrounding cannabis and other drugs?

Completely and utterly embarrassing and very transparently put in place to ‘look the part’ and follow suit with other very vocal nations, but comprised of very little fact and backed by zero research. They have created a thriving black market selling dangerous product and profiting criminals. 

When do you see the Irish government reforming our cannabis laws?

Do you see those who are in power at the moment making these reforms?

I’m torn. My hopeful, optimistic side sees legalisation and regulation of weed in the next three to seven years, if our leaders are smart enough to look to the 3Canadian model and the amount of revenue that was created there from nothing. It would also make some farmers unions happy as they have been lobbying for similar rights to grow hemp and related products and it would create a brand new industry full of jobs and additional international trade. My more cynical and pessimistic side agrees with the hot take from 4Blindboy, where he says that the Irish government will likely wait and wait until the USA legalises on a federal level, starts looking internationally and comes sniffing around our tax-light shores for a place to set up shop. Either way, it will be the money that sways them. That’s the only language they speak.

If you had an audience with Frank Feighan, Stephen Donnelly and co, what would be your message to them?

Catch up or move aside. We’re done with leaders who lead us nowhere. Be part of the solution to the problem or be left behind, but you won’t be able to hold up progress forever.

References

1 We highly recommend that you read Doctor Carl Hart’s book on this topic, reviewed here –

https://greenlensblog.com/2021/05/13/drug-use-for-grown-ups-review/

2 Check out the Little Collins CBD site at this link – https://littlecollinscbd.com/

3 To learn more about cannabis in Canada, check out my interview with Farrell Miller of

 NORML Canada here – https://greenlensblog.com/2020/12/09/farrell-miller-toronto-canada-21-11-2020/

4 Watch this recent Newstalk interview with Blindboy about cannabis in Ireland –

https://youtu.be/gXtJqwSLkiQ

Evie Nevin | 26.05.21

Evie Nevin is a political and disability rights activist. She is a member and former election candidate of the 1Social Democrats party and hosts 2The Zebra Mom Podcast, where she speaks with neurodivergent and disabled women. She has 3Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder which causes the production of faulty collagen. She has been on a 4waiting list to see a Pain Management Consultant since June 2017. The condition can potentially affect every system of the body and causes frequent joint dislocation. Evie’s main struggles are chronic pain, chronic fatigue and she faints easily and struggles to stay upright for very long, as it can cause her heart rate to increase and blood pressure to drop (a result of 5Autonomic Dysfunction, a co-morbid condition linked to EDS). Last year she was also diagnosed with Autism. May is 6EDS Awareness Month. Twitter: @evie_nevin / @thezebramom

How has your experience been, working on The Zebra Mom Podcast?

I started the podcast because I wanted to provide a platform for women who have disabilities and/or who are neurodivergent, because we are so rarely given a seat at the table. Life is hard enough being a woman but then adding disability, chronic pain or neurodivergency brings a whole host of extra challenges. This podcast is a space for women to highlight their struggles and the struggles of their own community. It’s early days, but I have already learned a lot from my chronically ill peers. We share so many of the same experiences as well, so it is nice to connect with people who can empathise with you.

Can you please give us a summary of your experiences having EDS diagnosed?

Getting diagnosed was a very long journey. Obviously I was born with the condition and while I had challenges growing up, the pain didn’t start until I was fourteen. Then by eighteen to nineteen, it was really problematic and the fatigue and digestive issues also kicked in. I went to my GP who diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. I tried so many antidepressants, but nothing was working. I went through some very dark times during that period because I was told it was all in my head and from my perspective, there was nothing to be done to fix it. Then in 2009, I was pregnant with my son and the EDS progressed again. We figured it was just typical pregnancy stuff, but it didn’t get any better. In fact, my pain and fatigue got much worse. I was sleeping so much. Then in 2012, I was interning for a newspaper and ended up interviewing a woman with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. 

Everything about her story resonated with me. She spoke about having to travel abroad for treatment. I was telling her about my own issues and she gave me the name of a knowledgeable Doctor in Cork who may be able to help. I brought the idea of EDS to a new GP who said it was unlikely, as EDS “is as rare as hen’s teeth”. But in November 2013, I was diagnosed with EDS and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. It was bittersweet. In one sense, I was relieved I finally knew what was wrong, in the other sense I was facing a life long condition and my children had a 50% chance of inheriting it too. My son was diagnosed with it a year later.

On March 9th, you tweeted a photograph of prescription pill packs, saying:

“This is 224 opiate based pain meds for the month. Then add the 224 paracetamol

I take too. This only just takes the edge off the pain.”

How does using cannabis compare to conventional prescription medicines, for EDS?

There are many EDS experts who recommend cannabis as a treatment for pain. I have asked Consultants in the past about possibly getting a prescription but they said at the time the guidelines were not very clear and that my condition is not on the list of approved conditions for a prescription for medical cannabis. The problem with long term opiate use is that you can develop all sorts of problems as a result. You can develop respiratory problems and I happen to have been diagnosed with asthma. You can have issues with your hormones etc. Also, with EDS, you can metabolise drugs very quickly and you can develop resistance extremely fast too, meaning you may have to move to stronger drugs and of course, without seeing a pain specialist, I can’t get anything stronger than Tramadol.

I have used cannabis before and even if it didn’t completely kill the pain, I was in a far better mental state to cope with it.

Last December 14th, you tweeted that the government needed to expand the Medical Cannabis Access Programme for patients with chronic pain. You said:

“High doses of opiates are far more dangerous than marijuana.

I developed a chronic respiratory illness and need regular organ function tests because of all the meds I’m on.”

Do you see the current government expanding MCAP in the near future, or generally reforming our cannabis laws?

I have hope that we will see the decriminalisation of cannabis within the next decade. I believe it should be legalised and taxed. But at the very least, it should be an option for people who live in chronic pain, where conventional medicine doesn’t allow the patient to live pain free.

Have you contested the fact that EDS isn’t regarded among the conditions approved for medical cannabis under MCAP?

I tried to sit down with Simon Harris when he was Minister for Health to discuss the overall situation for patients with EDS. The HSE isn’t being truthful about the lack of expertise here in Ireland. I had planned to speak with him about medical cannabis too but unfortunately, that never came to fruition. Once Covid has subsided, I plan to try with Minister (for Health, Stephen) Donnelly. An interview I gave on the subject was read out in the Dáil at one point too.

When did you first become interested in cannabis?

I think every Irish teenager comes across it at some point, but I didn’t realise the potential it had for pain management until much later on in life, once I had heard EDS experts talk about it.

What are your personal preferences in terms of how to use cannabis?

The CBD buds I buy. I smoke. I am a frequent buyer from 7Little Collins.

While it doesn’t help with pain, it does help relax me a bit; enough to cope.

In July 2018, you spoke at Macroom Townlands Carnival about whether Ireland should legalise cannabis with 8TD Gino Kenny (of People Before Profit), 9Vera Twomey and 10Thomas O’Connor. How was this discussion received at the time, and do you feel that public support for legalisation has grown since that time?

It went down very well. I remember the Gardaí were standing at the back of the tent listening in for a few minutes, but then they left and didn’t seem bothered at all. I think everyone in that tent was on the same page, at least about decriminalisation. I think more and more people are coming round to the idea of legalising it.

Do you know a lot of people who use cannabis recreationally or medicinally?

I know a few people who do use it medically in other States where it is legal and they say it does help.

Has political and disability rights activism significantly affected or changed your view of our government? What are some of your current areas of focus in activism?

I became politically active during 11Repeal and campaigned as Disabled People for Choice, as disabled people were spoken about rather than spoken to. That led me directly into politics and I decided to run for election because I see nobody in local or national politics who looks like me or has the same experiences as me. My main focuses at the moment are housing, healthcare, adoptee rights and generally any issues that disproportionately affect minority groups. I’m very much about “nothing about us without us”.

Thanks for your time, Evie! All the best!

References

1 Find out more about the Social Democrats here – https://www.socialdemocrats.ie/about-us/

2 Check out The Zebra Mom Podcast here – https://anchor.fm/thezebramom

3 Follow this link for more information on Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

https://www.ehlers-danlos.org/what-is-eds/

4 This extremely long wait was mentioned in a recent Evening Echo interview with Evie, at this link

https://www.echolive.ie/corknews/arid-40290170.html

5 Autonomic Dysfunction is explained in detail at the following link –

https://www.ehlers-danlos.org/information/autonomic-dysfunction/

6 Check out my interview earlier this month with fellow EDS patient, Milly Gilbert, at this link –

https://greenlensblog.com/2021/05/25/milly-gilbert-20-05-2021/

7 Check out what Little Collins have on offer at this link – https://www.littlecollinscbd.com/

8 Find out TD Gino Kenny‘s thoughts on cannabis in this recent Irish Examiner debate piece here –

https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-40284671.html

9 Check out my interview with Vera Twomey here –

https://greenlensblog.com/2020/11/25/vera-twomey-cork-21-11-2020/

10 Here’s a 2013 article from The Kerryman with information on Thomas O’Connor‘s Free My Weed campaign –

https://www.independent.ie/regionals/kerryman/news/free-my-weed-29731231.html

11 Here’s an article on The Journal detailing the 2018 victory of the Repeal the 8th campaign,

following a national referendum on the right to have an abortion in Ireland – https://jrnl.ie/4034416