Brendan and Ryan of Crainn

Crainn (the Irish word for ‘trees’) are a cannabis advocacy group who boast Ireland’s largest online cannabis community, with over 30,000 members on their Reddit page alone. They started life there, but have since expanded their presence to Twitter and other social media outlets. Recently, on April 20th (‘420’) they organised a team of volunteers in Dublin to provide information on the benefits and potential of cannabis. In this interview, Richard is joined by Brendan and Ryan, who are both Crainn moderators.

When was Crainn first planned and what aims had you in mind for it originally?

Ryan: This is a bit of a complicated question actually, because the subreddit has been around since 2010 and I would’ve been around nine years old when it started. Richard laughs We don’t actually know who set it up originally. Someone set it up and it was sitting there with a couple of hundred members for a while. Then it got passed down to a Reddit user called Golden161 and he was running it with two guys who are still with us now. Golden161 became busier with responsibilities, so he stopped moderating the subreddit and it was left for a while. In 2017, we started rebuilding the subreddit a bit and we began to moderate it and put guidelines in place.

For a while, it was just a little forum that was a kind of free-for-all. From around 2018 onwards, we started to see a growth in engagement. That’s when members started to come in and moderating had to be taken more seriously. A little under a year ago, after a Covid lockdown when we had a really big spike in users, we said: ‘There’s a lot of people here. There’s a lot of demand for change. People want something to happen, let’s get organised.’ And that’s where we are now. Is there anything you’d like to add to that, Brendan? Brendan: Ah no, not really. I first became aware of Crainn through Reddit around 2016. I’m not a big Redditor, so I was mostly lurking, keeping my head down so to speak. During the lockdown, I got heavily involved in the history of prohibition in Ireland and that’s led me down a rabbit hole and on to political campaigning, so here I am.

Why was the name Crainn chosen?

Ryan: Are you aware of the subreddit, Trees? It’s a general cannabis subreddit. There’s different offshoots of that, like UK Trees and Canadian Trees. The lads who set it up originally wanted to make an Irish Trees, but they didn’t want to call it Irish Trees, so they called it Trees ‘as Gaeilge’ [in Irish], which is Crainn. So that’s where the name comes from.

Your subreddit was created back in November 2010. How long was it before it really started gaining recognition? Was there a point before the pandemic where mods started noticing much pickup? Ryan: I could speak to this a little bit. There’s a graph [see below] showing the subreddit subscriber growth, from when it was set up until today. It was gaining slow growth from 2010 up until Covid but when the lockdown hit in 2020, the subscriber rate went up exponentially. It doubled or tripled, it went from around 15,000 to 30,000. I think the subreddit really grew during the lockdown.

Did you focus much on promoting the subreddit to gain members yourselves, or has it mainly been an organic growth in your experience? Ryan: We’ve never promoted the subreddit, bar the stickers we did a while ago. People just come to it. It grows organically on Reddit. I think it’s the only significant thing that’s on Reddit for cannabis in Ireland, to be honest. Reddit is probably one of the few social media channels where people can publicly talk about cannabis without fear of being banned. It makes sense that it would gain a large following there. Brendan: My intro to the Crainn subreddit stemmed from my involvement on Discord with people in the US and Canadian cannabis scenes. Things have been largely normalised in those regions for a while. Lockdown left me looking for what’s there in terms of an Irish cannabis community. It’s one of the things that brought me on to Reddit

Do you guys feel that Reddit going public has had any effect on how subreddits are moderated? Do you feel that site mods have come down more harshly on cannabis-related content? Ryan: It’s funny that you mention that. We’ve always been on Reddit’s good side because of how well we moderate according to the terms of service there. On the subreddit, you’re not allowed to ask: ‘Where can I buy cannabis? Can I sell you some cannabis? Can we meet up and trade cannabis?’ It’s illegal, so we don’t allow it. We’re always on top of that. But recently, in the States, there’s been a ban on sending vapes out in the post. This includes dry herb vapes, CBD vapes, all of that. Any subreddit relating to vaporisers has been wiped out or put on lockdown, we noticed that straight away. We have to put new rules in place whenever Reddit clamps down.

We’re now not allowing people to buy, trade or sell vaporisers on Crainn. If they do, we have to remove their posts. We need to keep on top of Reddit’s terms of service and make sure we moderate within those limits – then we’re on their good side. Reddit going public has had an effect on moderation, because we increasingly need to keep an eye out [for updates to the terms]. We actually have a bigger problem with Instagram. Our Instagram was taken down for posting about cannabis. We never posted a picture or anything like that, only infographics and we still got taken down. And we haven’t heard anything back. Luckily, Reddit isn’t that bad. If it was, we would be long gone, because people like posting their bongs and everything like that. If you posted that on Instagram, you’d be gone in an hour.

How was Crainn’s experience of partaking in 420 events this year, in Dublin and online? Ryan: On April 20th, we were in town volunteering and the experience was great. It was our first time actually getting out there doing an event like that, in person. Roughly how many people were involved in the volunteer team? There were about eight to ten people at any given time, because certain individuals were also getting involved in other things. I’d never met a lot of them in my life, but I knew a lot of them for a long time online. I was meeting them in person and getting the high vis [jacket] on and talking to people and seeing everyone’s different knowledge bases, ‘cause everyone was into different things. One of the lads was really into the medical side of things, one of them was really into hemp. It was good to get out there and see that and connect with people, not just from the cannabis community. The older generation were a lot more receptive to our campaign than I thought they’d be. They were really into it. It must be because of CBD interest nowadays. They were saying, ‘I’d love to try that, people are telling me to try it.’ I was surprised by it, because you often hear from the community online that the older generation are holding us back, and that is true to an extent, but when we were out on the streets campaigning, they were really into it. To be honest with you, it was an excellent experience and it was eye-opening in some ways. 

We were at the picnic as well, which was hosted by the Major Group for Cannabis Reform [on Saturday the 23rd]. We just went to that as civilians, I suppose you could say. Brendan: It was my second year at it. I went to their event last year as well, which was under much more restrictive terms. But it was during one of the gaps in the [Covid-19] lockdowns, so it was all sort of manageable. The turnout this year, I thought, was a bit down on last year. It was a good event, although it was a little chilly, in my mind. As Ryan was saying, you’d get to put eyeballs on people you know online. We might have known each other for years, but it was our first opportunity to meet in some cases, so it was really good in that way. And I think that this sort of thing is very important actually, because it’s beginning to normalise [cannabis use] within our own community. Self-stigma is holding us back a lot of the time, we’re afraid to talk about it. This is a perfectly normal thing for grown-ups to do in a lot of parts of the world, to consume cannabis.

Did you notice any growth at all in media or political attention relating to this year’s Irish 420 events? Brendan: Yeah, I definitely did. I think the attendance was down a bit because Dua Lipa was in Dublin on 420 and the following day, while Ed Sheeran was on the 23rd and 24th. There was a lot on that week. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan was at the Major Picnic, as was Gino Kenny. Luke gave a really good speech, there was some beat poetry on the day. It was good, it was well-ran, they marshalled it well, the park was left tidy. The guards weren’t in evidence, but I’m sure they were there. The organisers had clearly gotten the necessary approvals because there was a PA system and various other things that couldn’t be facilitated last year when they were there. I think more of these kinds of events are necessary actually, to bring people together, out of their shells. In some ways, as well, if you’re looking at drug use in general – it’s better that it’s a shared experience, in terms of health and attitudes and understanding what you’re doing and safe consumption.

Ryan: I noticed RTÉ covered the Major Picnic, which was good to see. Brendan: Yeah! It actually made the news, which I think was a first. It hadn’t been covered the previous year, even though there was a substantial turnout. Ryan: I think overall, there was a lot of media coverage on 420-related events this year. There was the Crainn info day, the protest and the Major Picnic. So there were different outlets picking out different parts of what was going on, which made it a little bit more spread out. There were a couple of articles on the info day that were put out pre-empting it, by District and Buzz, who did great coverage. Then, after the fact, RTÉ was there doing their own little bits and bobs. So it was actually quite good.

We were hyping the info day up for a while as well, to try and get it out there. I think that if events like this are happening, especially on 420, do a lot of planning and try to get the word out there and the media are gonna follow. They need stories to cover. Cannabis stuff is a kind of fringe topic and it’s exciting to cover and it gets clicks. So I think the more events there are, the better. Brendan: Yeah. I think Ryan’s hit on a really important point there, actually. One of the problems we’ve got is that cannabis reports of busts and raids and things generate huge amounts of clicks for the media industry, so they want to cover stories in a certain way because they get a lot of page impressions. But cannabis in general will get you the page impressions at this stage, so give them good content that’s not necessarily somebody having their life changed for half a gram and the coverage will follow, I hope.

Have Crainn got any interesting campaigns in the works that you’d like to share with us? Ryan: I can speak to this a little bit. I don’t want to give too much away, but we are planning to do some more events in person. We’d like to do another info day and we’re having a few more online events as well, but we’re not going to announce them just yet. We’re just gonna wait till we have everything ready, but there is stuff for the cannabis community in Ireland to keep an eye out for, we’re looking forward to it. We’re taking part in the Patients for Safe Access national conference [June 11th], as speakers. That’s not our project, but we’re happy to get up there and speak and try to help give them a voice. We have our own things planned as well, so just keep an eye out for some more things we’ll announce, hopefully in the near future. Perfect, looking forward to that!

How do you see yourselves helping to increase support for cannabis reform in the future? What’s next in the development of Crainn? Ryan: I think to help to increase support you just need to have the facts on your side. One of the pillars of the Crainn organisation is education, we place major importance on it. We try our best to make sure we’re talking facts and making sense. We always have a study or a source if we’re making a point on Twitter or on Reddit, so we can refer to it. Because sometimes you will have people saying, ‘That’s nonsense’. But you can say: ‘This is where we got it from. Feel free to have a look at it and come back to us if there’s anything else.’ We need to have education, because it is an emotional topic. You feel like you’re getting wronged with the current laws. But at the end of the day, you need to have the facts, because the people you’re up against have qualifications, sometimes.

People such as Bobby Smyth and the Cannabis Risk Alliance. They have the qualifications, but oftentimes they don’t have the facts. So we need to present the data and say: ‘What can you say about this? Teen use is dropping in various legalised states in America. This is how we protect young people – not by banning it, by legalising it.’ That’s just one example. Brendan: I think we’ve all heard our various government advisors speaking in radio interviews and things in recent years. And quite often, when it actually comes to facts, they will tell you stuff with their professional hat on. When questioned by the journalist about it, they’ll say: ‘Oh, well just Google it.’ But we need better than that. There’s a huge amount of harm being done, I think, in the teenage to early college years age group at the moment, particularly post-lockdown.

The supply chains have been very badly damaged. Synthetics, which were a problem prior to lockdown, are now endemic across pretty much everything, except for [cannabis] flower. And even flower is contaminated at times. These are really genuinely dangerous substances that are harming people, so we have to educate. This shouldn’t be our role. A health-led policy should mean that we are making moves in the right direction, but we’re not at the moment. Another thing I personally find shocking is that the Director of Public Prosecutions delegates all the small case stuff completely to the Gardaí. Where is the public interest oversight that this Director is supposed to have? It looks like we’ve got a bunch of laws that are running on autopilot because it suits certain people. And politically, there’s an utter unwillingness to touch them.

Where would you see the development of Crainn happening in the short to medium term future? Ryan: We have projects that we’re working hard on. One of the things that Brendan touched on is synthetics. We want to become an educational force on what’s going on in Ireland. There’s a big problem with Spice edibles going around, which you’re probably aware of from social media, but it’s being completely under-reported. This is what the government should be doing. ‘There’s synthetic cannabis here, this is what it looks like. This is what it does to you, avoid it.’ And we want to just keep doing what we’re doing – educating, normalising, developing a great community that’s collaborating and helping each other out. We want sensible reform.

Brendan: Normalisation is, in effect, what the current drugs policy is fighting against. It’s got its targets on that. It’s like trying to hold a tide back though, because the forces of normalisation are coming from everywhere now. They’re coming from Canada and the US and soon from Malta and Europe and other places. Ireland will look like a backwater. I’ve tweeted about the original debate on the [Irish] Misuse of Drugs Act and it has got some real gems in it. It wasn’t a black and white debate at all. The people who made certain decisions that have left us where we are now were told by senior politicians of the day what the outcomes would be, including the negative impacts on the justice system. There’s actually quite a contrast if you look at the debate that took place around Ming’s [2013] Bill. The government didn’t read it, they just ridiculed it. But I’ve a feeling they won’t get away with that again when Gino’s Bill goes forward.

We’ve seen under a freedom of information request that the government has been trying to keep cannabis entirely out of the Citizens’ Assembly [on Drugs] process. There’s not a chance of that happening. It feels again like there’s some tyre-kicking going on. Ryan: When this Bill comes to the Dáil and it’s debated, I don’t think politicians will get away with spouting misinformation anymore. I think that the climate’s changed. If they come out talking rubbish, people are going to call them out on it. Brendan: I don’t know, I think they might well carry on talking rubbish for a while, It’s hard to say.

Something you touched on earlier, Ryan, was that the older age group seemed a lot more open to cannabis than expected. With my age group, starting with people slightly younger than me, that’s when the bullshit in terms of drug education really began. The ‘Just Say No’ stuff. And the people who are a little bit older than me come from a time where we had quite a different justice system that wasn’t so focused on prosecuting – it was much more focused on diversion. There was a different culture towards justice at the time. Really, the war on drugs weaponised everything. And if you look at what various Ministers of Justice have done with it over the years, it’s revitalised the careers of many a failing Minister, by giving them something to ‘be tough on’.

Let’s hope Ryan is right and that politicians won’t get away with ignoring cannabis data and misinforming the public any more. Thanks so much for your time this evening gentlemen. All the best with Crainn moving forward!

 

Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media | Review

Michael L. Rosino is the Assistant Professor of Sociology at Molloy College in New York State. In his book, Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media, he explores the following areas of debate on the War on Drugs: ‘the history of the relationship between racism and drug policies, the role of the media as a place where people debate these policies, how the debate reflects popular ideas about race, crime, and politics and even commonly held ideals like justice, equality, and freedom, and how people construct and reinforce identities through their participation in these debates and what that means for society’.

In order to get a clear breakdown of the views held by people in this debate across the media, he ‘conducted a content analysis of over 30 years of US newspaper content that focuses on the War on Drugs, including 394 op-eds, letters to the editor, and news articles.’ He also examined ‘3,145 comments on the internet’, gathering them from the comments sections of relevant online news articles, published from 2009 to 2014. Including the Introduction and Conclusion, there are six chapters, which include questions for academics to discuss, as well as additional notes. To emphasise the ongoing legacy of systemic racism in the United States, Rosino begins the Introduction by detailing the fatal police shooting of unarmed eighteen-year-old African-American, Ramarley Graham, in 2012. He mentions that this was only one of three killings of black men that week by the New York Police Department.

A plain clothes NYPD Officer shot Graham in the bathroom of his home, which he shared with his grandmother and six-year-old brother, after the cops involved broke down both the back door and the bathroom door. Graham was trying to flush a small amount of newly-bought cannabis down the toilet. The officers involved had seen his purchase through street cameras and had decided to follow him home, entering without a warrant. Before the young man’s home was breached, Officer Richard Haste announced that Graham had a firearm, ‘perhaps misrecognising the young man adjusting the waistband of his pants’. A gun was never found at the site. This gives readers a sample of the racist police violence that is so prevalent across the US. Rosino covers the racist origins of American drug prohibition, which relied on the creation of moral panics, exaggeratedly defining activities, events or people as ‘a threat to societal values and interests’.

The powerful would manufacture such hysteria, linking minority ethnic groups to the supply of drugs and the corruption of the innocence of white moral values. The author begins by outlining the suppression of Chinese opium dens in the 1870s, eventually leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law excluding an entire ethnic group from entering the United States. Anti-Catholic sentiment and growing antisemitism against Jewish immigrants in the alcohol trade, by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, led to a demand for alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Popular and influential media depicted European migrants who identified with these religions as threatening to the dominance of white Protestants in America. Mexicans, blacks and Native Americans were all presented by the Temperance movements as engaging in criminal and immoral activities, particularly when using alcohol. Rosino provides examples of how historical prohibition has had a lasting effect on racial discrimination in policing and the legal and criminal justice systems.

One study from 2006 stated that, ‘although a majority of drug transactions involving the five serious drugs under consideration here involve a white drug dealer, 64 percent of those arrested for drug delivery in Seattle from January 1999 to April 2001 were black.’ A 2016 study said: ‘Overall, in comparison to blacks, whites receive shorter prison sentences for the same drug crimes in the United States.’ A 2007 study into the effects of felony convictions on employment, found that white applicants who had felony convictions received more callbacks than blacks who had no criminal record at all. A groundbreaking sociological study of crime carried out by W.E.B Du Bois in 1889 gets a mention too, where he showed that ‘racial differences in crime rates were a product of residential segregation, disproportionate policing and surveillance, the impact of slavery, racial discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, and lack of government investment in black communities.’

Rosino mentions two response tiers which began to emerge for problem opiate drug use in America during the 2010s. One of harm reduction, treatment and empathy, and one of surveillance, punishment and incarceration. Statistically, the former tends to be the approach for white people with drug issues, while the latter is how black people with the same issues are dealt with. Although the Obama government began moving away from severely punitive drug laws, former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of the Trump administration re-introduced regressive drug laws and narratives, positing that cannabis use is linked to violence and that it is addictive and dangerous. Rosino discusses media agenda-setting, via frames, which present coherent narratives of a complicated War on Drugs. By examining digital copies of local, regional, and national newspapers containing the term ‘War on Drugs’, from the ’80s onwards, the author was able to break down exactly how arguments have been framed in the media over the years.

He presented four primary frames: Fiscal, Freedom and Justice, Functionalism and Racial Unfairness, each of which was further broken down into sub-frames. They were given percentages based on the frequency they appeared. The frame of Racial Unfairness was the least common to appear, at almost 9%. Additional frames were included in the author’s breakdown of internet comments, such as Racialized Victim Blaming, which had sub-frames like Denial of racism. Racial Unfairness was acknowledged nearly 12% of the time by commenters. According to Psychologist and Sociologist, William J. Ryan, victim blaming involves ‘justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.’ Racialized Victim Blaming took place when commenters ‘interpreted racial disparities in arrest or mass incarceration as a natural or legitimate outcome of inherent differences in traits between whites and blacks.’ Such comment authors ‘saw clear evidence of systemic oppression as instead serving as evidence of moral inferiority or social deviance.’

For me, chapters four and five were the most eye-opening sections of the book, as they covered important terms like racial silence, coded language and identity construction. Racial silence involves the implicit silence of whites (including white-dominated media) regarding the ongoing legacy of systemic racism, which is a central issue of the discriminatory War on Drugs. Because whites are dominant in positions of power and influence, their perceptions of themselves, other ethnic groups, and so-called cultural norms in behaviour and thought are imposed on society, promoting their interests as being legitimate, natural, or common sense. Coded language is explained by the author as ‘enabling claim makers to construct racialized subject-positions while maintaining surface-level racial silence.’ Code words for ethnic minorities range from crack babies and welfare recipients to terrorists, cartels and thugs. Words such as these are used to ‘conjure racial imagery, yet avoid the direct evocation of racial categories.’

In this way, age-old myths about an intrinsic superiority of whites compared to other ethnic groups who are threatening, dysfunctional, and morally-inferior are reinforced to some degree in the public psyche. Rosino states that identity construction and reinforcement are an integral part of responding to, understanding and debating a given issue, such as the War on Drugs. People are inclined to identify themselves as being part of a particular group, while excluding others via symbolic boundaries. The categorising of racial groups, dominant traits associated with them, and differences between them, are just some symbolic boundaries. Such notions are highly influenced by those with the most power and influence in society. Michael L. Rosino’sDebating the Drug War..‘ is more informative and enlightening than this review can truly communicate. It’s packed with sociological and racial concepts and data which underline the urgency for drastic racial justice and drug reform in America (and by extension, the Western world and beyond).

Many uncomfortable truths of systemic racism are laid bare in this book. Often, those truths are ignored, undermined or denied in the media and in public discourse. It seems that a significant amount of white Americans prefer to imagine that their society is fundamentally fair and equal and that those complaining about social inequities have simply failed in life through poor personal choices, or were born into an inherently inferior culture with lesser moral values. The reality is that this is nonsense. No ethnic groups are less morally sound or more naturally prone to dysfunction, violence and crime.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Michael L. Rosino for providing us with a review copy of this book.

Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction | Review

Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist focused on neuroscience, addiction and drug policy. She has written for the likes of High Times, VICE, The New York Times and The Guardian. Her newest book, Undoing Drugs, provides a comprehensive history of North American harm reduction movements, which arose as a response to the frightening AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. It details the harm reduction movement’s evolution from the late ’70s onwards. Groups like ADAPT (The Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment) and ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and later, organisations like the DPA (Drug Policy Alliance) and the NHRC (National Harm Reduction Coalition) are explored. Undoing Drugs covers a range of topics across drug policy; the devastation of AIDS, the fight for supervised injection facilities, overdose prevention via Naloxone, compassionate changes to addiction and pain treatment and the emergence of national drug reform organisations.

The book is a tribute to ‘The Goddess of Harm Reduction’, Edith Springer, who is credited with introducing the harm reduction concept to America, thanks to a meeting with Allan Parry. Parry ran a successful harm reduction programme with Doctor John Marks in Liverpool, England. At one time, they were legally prescribing unadulterated, safe doses of heroin and cocaine to drug users. They also ran a needle exchange programme where they’d provide sterile needles in exchange for used ones, which they would safely dispose of. Clean needle programmes weren’t something that had been successfully organised yet in the States. Initially, they focused on educating injecting drug users on how to clean needles out with bleach and water, before re-using or sharing them. The book credits an exhaustive list of players in the harm reduction movement, from those mentioned above, to people like Yolanda Serrano, Jon Parker, Michelle Alexander, Dan Bigg, Stephanie Comer and Dave Purchase. All made valuable contributions to harm reduction in different periods, but tragically, not all of the groundbreaking and inspiring figures in this movement would survive to now, due to overdoses or illnesses.

Szalavitz experienced a major shock in 1990, when she first learned of the link between shared needles and HIV. She describes the ‘utter hell’ of waiting on HIV test results for two long weeks, before receiving the welcomed news that she hadn’t contracted it. It was at this point in her life that she decided that educating people about harm reduction and helping to introduce public harm reduction measures was precisely what she would devote herself to doing. Like Doctor Carl Hart, Szalavitz examines the racist origins of the war on drugs. She tells that even alcohol prohibition in the US had racist reasoning behind it: ‘..many white Protestants felt their power was threatened by rising numbers of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy, as well as Eastern European Jews. Prohibition was seen as a way to take back control.‘ She touches on the precedent set by The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and explains how in 1930, Harry Anslinger, as the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, fought for a strict federal ban on cannabis on the premise that weed ‘would seduce white women and lead to widespread insanity among previously pure white youth‘.

He ignored 29 of the 30 Doctors he interviewed about cannabis, who said that it wasn’t harmful enough to ban. This reckless anti-drug attitude would continue later, most notably with Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Szalavitz outlines the public mindset, from the ’60s onwards, as follows: ‘..illegal drugs had been firmly linked in the American mind with poor, Black, and brown criminals — and the stereotype of the “addict” as a lazy, devious, and violent sociopath mapped perfectly on to the racist stereotypes many whites held about those groups. With a compliant media, it was easy to blame violence and poverty on drugs — and not the socioeconomic circumstances that actually do lead people to problematic relationships with substances. It was also easy to spike fear that the evil drugs used by poor Black and brown people would soon be coming for innocent white babes.‘ Elsewhere, she quotes a lawyer, who said the following about crack cocaine in a New York Times op-ed in 1986: ‘If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years.

It’s apparent from these descriptions of the anti-drugs rhetoric of US authorities that the narrative on drugs has long been manipulated by those in power, to avoid taking responsibility for the neglect of various social issues and as a means of scapegoating ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. The narratives of traditional and dominant twelve-step recovery programmes are challenged, such as those found at Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, where their only measure of success for an addict is total abstinence from intoxicating substances. Addiction is viewed as a ‘progressive disease’, such that if someone changed from buying crack every weekend to smoking a joint once or twice in a month, that person would be labelled ‘still using’ and ‘not in recovery’. This is because ‘progression of the disease’ is seen as inevitable, meaning that in their view, such an instance of seemingly controlled cannabis use ‘will ultimately spiral back to chaotic crack addiction’.

Szalavitz also covers the Housing Works organisation, which was founded to combat homelessness and addiction through the provision of free housing. The organisation was based on the ‘Housing First’ premise that it’s ‘highly unlikely that someone living in an unstable setting or entirely without shelter will be able to quit alcohol or other drugs while still on the street.‘ Along with the likes of Stand Up Harlem, they were shown to have tremendous success in reducing chronic homelessness and by extension, addiction rates. They stood in stark contrast with housing provision programmes that demanded the near-impossible from drug users – that they be entirely ‘clean of drugs’ before granting them accommodation. Root causes for many people who end up in damaging life scenarios are mentioned by the author, where she states: ‘Virtually everyone who ends up homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and HIV positive has a long history of childhood trauma, typically compounded by the experience of racism and the extreme distress and social rejection that comes with living on the street or being incarcerated.

Although Undoing Drugs is often heartbreakingly tragic, it is a vitally important book that highlights the success of applied harm reduction and the contrasting failure of continued ignorance and stonewalling. It considers the countless people who take drugs who are routinely stigmatised, marginalised, and de-humanised due to conservative, hardline drug policies. The key message throughout is an urgent need for the powers that be to adopt a more humane and effective approach for drug policy. Emphasis is placed on the importance of protecting human lives above all else. Maia Szalavitz‘ book is full of data that proves the success of initiatives which treat drug users with respect and dignity, helping them to stabilise themselves and restructure their lives enough to feel ready to quit the drugs that they were disrupting their lives with in the first place. Perhaps by now, world leaders should be sitting up and listening keenly to the likes of Ms. Szalavitz, instead of ‘being tough on drugs’.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Hachette Books for providing us with a review copy of this book.

Emily – Part II | 26.03.21

Emily describes herself as an Irish goth who loves makeup. She has Asperger’s Syndrome and suffers from other physical and mental health conditions which greatly affect her quality of life. Here, she speaks in more depth about the kinds of medications she has been prescribed and how she takes them, while also looking at their side effects and faults and how they compare with cannabis. Twitter: @lilithlunalou

Hi again! How many prescribed medications do you take on a typical day?

I’ve been on numerous medications throughout the years. Mostly opiate-based medication, like Tylex, OxyNorm and antibiotics. I was prescribed things like Olanzapine, Seroquel, Risperidone. I can’t remember the rest, unfortunately. 

Do you believe the medications improve your quality of life overall?

Most of them made me worse or didn’t do anything at all.

Do you believe your medications have been prescribed carefully (i.e. not over-prescribed)?

I was over-prescribed many times, especially when I was in hospital. No-one was on half the medication I was on. I couldn’t wake up and function. I could only sleep and drool, that’s all I was fit to do. The nurses would try to get me out of bed. I would try and I’d walk through the hallway, leaning against the walls for support as I walked

Does purchasing those prescribed meds cost you a lot?

It used to, till I got my medical card. 

How do your medications affect you? Are there any in particular which stand out in terms of side effects, or a lack of efficacy?

I’m only on one prescription at the moment and that’s my depot of Paliperidone. I’m lucky that this one doesn’t make you drowsy, however it does cause weight gain. As a result, my ankles and legs are swollen with water retention and so is most of my body. Walking can feel like walking on glass or pebbles. 

Which of your prescribed medications work best?

None have worked for me. They’ve caused more problems than help. Cannabis is the only thing that’s worked for me. 

How would you compare the effects of the antipsychotics with the antidepressants? Do they work well together?

No, as you end up getting triple the amount of side effects. 

Are there any Irish CBD products you’ve tried and particularly liked?

I haven’t tried any Irish brands. I have tried American and English brands, such as 2400mg of CBD Leaf oil, as well as 1500mg of CBD leaf vape juice. I’ve tried CBD flowers, such as Diesel and Great White Shark. Both were good. I’ve tried roll-on oil for back pain, which is good. The only problem is, it’s a small bottle. And you’ve to buy three or four, so you’re not panicking in a short period of time about when you can get the next bottle. Also, I must note, CBD does wonders for my sleep. I normally only get an hour’s sleep, if lucky, without cannabis. I sleep every night, at least for seven or eight hours, when I use cannabis.

Do you believe cannabis has any benefits in particular for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome?

My partner and grandad noticed I socialise better. I’m able to hold a conversation without going into too much detail and going into overload. I don’t panic or stress as much as I used to over basic tasks. This does depend on the CBD product and what strain I’m using. 

When did your partner start using cannabis for pain relief? Late twenties.

What sort of pain does cannabis help your partner with?

All strains do wonders for my partner. I’ve seen him without it for a couple of weeks. He was coming home from work, barely able to walk. All he was able for was lying in bed or sitting on the couch. He had to take time off of work. seeing him like that broke my heart. 

Do you and your partner ever feel unsafe getting cannabis in Ireland, due to its general illegality? Yes.

And why do you feel unsafe?

Having to source it by a drug dealer, instead of buying it from a legal and regulated source. The fact that it’s criminalised is a huge factor as to why it’s unsafe. When you’re getting it from a dealer you don’t know what strain it is, what THC or CBD levels are in it. You don’t know if it’s been chemically grown or sprayed. 

How does using cannabis help with your eating disorder?

Increases appetite, reduces nausea and vomiting. It also relaxes me to the point where now, I can actually do more research into finding out more about it. It also gets rid of my body dysmorphia. I don’t see myself as obese, the way I do when I’ve no CBD in my system. 

How would you describe Schizophrenia to other people?

It’s seeing/hearing/smelling/feeling things that aren’t there. 

Do you experience the symptoms of it often?

Every day I experience symptoms. The intensity of it varies from day to day. When I’m relaxed or feeling normal, it’s not as bad. It only got worse when I was on prescribed medication. On the box of some of these meds, in small print, it said: “May cause anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts”. We weren’t told this, so it was until it was too late and my partner read the box that we realised why I got so bad. Since being off those kinds of medications, I’m stabilising. The symptoms usually ease as you get older. When I was in my late teens to early twenties, it was really bad. As I’m getting older and doing a lot of mental work on myself with the help of cannabis, my symptoms aren’t all day every day, like before. Now that my body isn’t constantly fighting physical pain, I can tackle my mental pain head on! I get symptoms every day, but it’s not as scary as people think. What I experience is spiritual, not in a religious way. 

Can you elaborate on why the experience feels spiritual for you? I would rather not answer. 

Do you feel, personally, that cannabis affects your Schizophrenia?

No. The only time it affected me badly was when I was scared to use it. Once I let go of my fear, it really started to help. Also, it’s like any medication. There are many strains. It will take time to find one that suits everything. However, even the cannabis that didn’t suit me 100% was better than any prescribed medication I’ve been on. 

Do you believe cannabis helps with Bipolar Disorder?

Cannabis has multiple benefits for multiple ailments. I think it can help with all mental illnesses, including helping with physical ailments. Cannabis has helped me with all my ailments, from my head to toes. We all have the receptors in our bodies for this plant. Bipolar is an imbalanced level of emotions. Cannabis relaxes patients with mental health issues; it quietens the mind. If the mind is quietened and it’s relaxed, emotions will level out also, as a result. 

Thanks again for chatting with me Emily, all the best!

Emily | 23.03.21

Emily describes herself as a goth who loves makeup. She has Asperger’s Syndrome and suffers from other physical and mental health conditions which greatly affect her quality of life. Here, she speaks of how she has tackled these conditions and how the Irish system has failed her on many occasions by not providing her with adequate care. She also describes how cannabis has significantly changed her life, by doing what conventional medicines couldn’t. Twitter: @lilithlunalou

Hi Emily, firstly thanks so much for devoting some time to speak to us.

Can you tell us a little bit about who you are?

I’m 24, I live in County Cork.

When did you first find out you had a Desmoid tumour?

After my last surgery, my abdomen became unbearably itchy and it wouldn’t go away. Then lumps started to form. I kept going to my Doctor, [redacted], to seek further help. He told me it was just the stitching that needed to dissolve. He had previously told me it would only take a couple months for the stitches to dissolve. Four years later, after many hospital admissions, being in constant extreme levels of pain and lumps getting bigger, I finally got them to take a scan and biopsy. I was 21 or 22 when I found out I had two Desmoids. I possibly have a third one as I’ve a third lump, but they are refusing to look into it. 

Why won’t they look into the possibility of a third Desmoid tumour?

My case always gets overlooked. My partner wants to go to the newspaper or radio station with how I’ve been treated over the years. They just don’t seem to care. I keep asking my GP to ring them or email them and she keeps saying: “They haven’t gotten back to me. That probably means they didn’t find anything sinister”. Yet when I question the multiple Oncologists, I see they always act puzzled and ignore my question about the third lump. I never seem to see the Oncologist that was assigned to me, Doctor [redacted]. Women don’t get taken seriously by Doctors, especially if they are autistic. Whenever my partner comes in with me, I get treated with respect. If I go to appointments with another female, or by myself, I get ignored and rushed out the door. They give little information and little to no help with issues.

I’m very sorry to hear that. It’s disgraceful to be treated that way by anyone, but especially by medical professionals who have a significant influence on your health. When did you discover that you had Familial Adenomatous Polyposis?

I discovered I had FAP at age eighteen. It’s hereditary. We knew at a certain age that we would need a scope to see if we inherited the same condition as my dad. 

When were you diagnosed with Asperger’s, and anxiety, respectively?

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age eleven or twelve. I suffer with anxiety through trauma that I’ve experienced and have not been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. 

Have you attempted getting a diagnosis for your anxiety disorder before?

(If so, why do you feel that they were mistaken by not diagnosing you with one?)

I’ve tried to get properly screened for diagnoses and every Psychologist keeps telling me they are not quick to diagnose any more. It’s been over ten years I think, I’m overdue a screening for diagnosis. Emily laughs They keep telling me you may have (specific condition). Then I get told I don’t have it. And then I get told I may have (specific condition) again. I got treated very badly in [redacted] in Dublin, while under the Consultant, [redacted]. They wouldn’t allow me pain medication for my tumours.

I had my GP send a prescription letter and all my medical history to them before I even went up for admission. I was there four months and three out of those four months, I had no pain relief. That is only the tip of the iceberg of how I got treated there. As a result of how I got treated, I have no desire to seek help from Psychiatrists and Psychologists any more. 

That’s terrible, I’m so sorry to hear that your trust has been broken like that by psychological professionals. I hope others will handle your needs better and treat you with the respect you deserve, by listening to your feedback. Do your conditions affect you significantly on a day-to-day basis? Can it vary?

Yes, I’ve other conditions such as Schizophrenia and BPD (Bipolar Disorder) which interfere with my social life greatly. Before Covid, I spent most of my time in my room. I didn’t function, I didn’t shower, eat or sleep. I merely existed. 

What’s your view on the existing resources available in Ireland for Asperger’s Syndrome?

Are there enough help and resources out there for people with Asperger’s in 2021?

¹Aspect is a very good government-funded organisation. They have key workers that get assigned and best suited to us. They help with whatever you struggle with, or they can simply just listen if you need to vent. Aspect is amazing and has been the only constant support.

What kinds of treatment have you been prescribed for your conditions, and how successfully have they worked for you?

I’ve been prescribed various different antipsychotic medications and antidepressants. All they did was make me gain weight and sleep all day. I’ve an eating disorder as well, which made the gaining weight part very traumatic for me. As well as it has made my legs swell up and walking now feels like walking on glass or pebbles.

When did you first become interested in cannabis?

My partner smokes it for his pain. He’d be on the couch not able to function properly if it wasn’t for cannabis. He kept trying to convince me that it would help me. I kept trying and nothing worked. The odd time we’d get something that suited me. We discovered I have extremely low tolerance for THC. So now I only use CBD products with low THC.

When did you start to consider using cannabis therapeutically/medicinally, and how has using it in this way helped you?

I’ve tried it on and off for various different reasons. Summertime last year, my partner got ²Orange Bud. But it was very low in THC, so I tried some and to my amazement I felt normal. My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t constantly panicking. I was able to eat without getting sick. I could walk without feeling like I was walking on glass. Any pain I had, physically or mentally, it either went away completely or it was at a very manageable state. I got quality of life back, which is amazing.

That’s incredible, I’m very pleased to hear that. How have conventional medications helped with your conditions, compared with cannabis?

Other medications either made me worse or didn’t do anything at all. Cannabis has vastly improved my life. My own family has said there’s a huge difference since using it.

What’s your viewpoint on the Medical Cannabis Access Programme?

I think it’s great. They need to add all health conditions to the waiting list. I think it should be legal and regulated now, so our sick, including myself, can have safe access. I think we should do it the way Holland has done it. Legalise it, regulate it. Let people grow three, four plants at home. They should keep it illegal for dealers to sell it; only legal businesses can sell it. That way there’s no sprayed or chemically-grown cannabis being sold. Only the natural plant being sold. 

How important is the full legalisation of cannabis in Ireland for you?

Very important! (Without it) I wouldn’t be able to walk into town. I wouldn’t be able to leave my house to do simple things like shopping. I wouldn’t be able to do basic house work. 

Do you believe it can happen organically in Ireland, or will we need to see cannabis reform in the UK before it’s taken seriously here?

Not 100% sure. I think our government will probably wait till England follows suit with the States and Amsterdam, before they’ll take it seriously. I personally think Ireland should take note from Amsterdam. Also, I’m sure the EU has already acknowledged cannabis as a medicine, so Ireland can only refuse for so long. 

Emily, thanks for chatting with me. I’m glad to hear that cannabis has benefited your life and I wish you all the best moving forward.

References:

¹ For more information about Aspect, check out this recent Evening Echo article:

https://www.echolive.ie/corkviews/arid-40236755.html 

² To learn more about the Orange Bud strain, see the following page on Leafly:

https://www.leafly.com/strains/orange-bud