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  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!