Kyla Cobbler | Barcelona, Spain | 21.08.21

Kyla Cobbler is an Irish comedian and cannabis advocate living in Barcelona, Spain. She has built up an audience of 53.6 thousand followers on Instagram over the past two years, as her comedic ‘Stories’ have gained popularity. Recently, she announced that she would step back from social media for a break and some time to reflect. Earlier this month, she officially began working in a Cannabis Social Club in Barcelona, called Club Guru.

Hello Kyla! Hi! I’ll start the recording now, if you don’t mind. *Robotic Zoom voice confirms the recording has started* Oh, there you go… Did you hear that? ‘This meeting is being recorded.’ That was cool, I didn’t know it did that. The robot? I sorted that out from my side for the meeting, I wanted it to seem professional.

Excellent! How long have you been living in Barcelona? I’ve been living in Barcelona since February 2020. Right on time for the pandemic. I got here on the first, and then it went into lockdown. But I was living in Milan previously, for seven years. So, I literally went from the fire pot into the pan, or whatever the expression is. You had quite the experience with the post package that one time, and the threat of prisonYeah, you did your research, yeah! That was a mental situation, glad you got out of that one. Yeah, it was. It was quite an experience. Especially when it was an experience with drugs, that weren’t my drugs. I don’t take cocaine or ecstasy, I was like… *shocked expression* ‘Nooo!’ So it was a little bit hurtful. But yeah, I got here in February 2020 and then we went into lockdown Friday the 13th of March. And then we stayed in for sixty days, so that was fun. That was exciting. I bet it was, yeah. How did you manage to get the gig at The Comedy Clubhouse? Basically, I came in to do stand-up and there was an open mic and I met one of the owners.

The two owners are Dr. Matthew Murtha and John Allis, they’re both comedians, from America and New Zealand. I came in to see stand-up and I saw that they are absolutely hilarious and brilliant comedians, but terrible bartenders! So, obviously, with the Irish background, I slipped in, as an opportunity, and asked if they needed a hand, even just on weekends. Because I was waiting on Club Guru to be open, it was still under construction. But I was very lucky, because one, it was fun, and two, just to be around comedians and writers and creative people, it’s very stimulating and it’s just a good time. You know what I mean? It doesn’t feel like work, ever. I consider them my friends, for sure. Would you have a background in writing? Because I got the impression from an older post once that you were having a bit of a creative block. Yeah. I’ve always written. I’ve always done, we’ll say, more background work. So I’m very much happy to be the right hand man, or the wingman. That’d be more my kind of role.

Because I love writing jokes, and if someone comes to me with a thread or a sketch I am more than happy to write with them. I mean it depends on what the premise is, or what platform you’re using to perform the joke, ‘cause it always changes. I did stand-up comedy in Italy as well, in Milan, but in Italian. Oh wow! And I was always writing, you just always do write. If you see comedians, they always have notepads, they always have stationary shit in their hands, (stuff) written in their phones. It’s an observation, it’s a constant comic thread. And I write as well for pleasure, just to journal, for my business. Very impressive that you did stand-up in Italian, that’s mad! It is impressive. I’m glad you said that, it is impressive, I’m surprised myself (that) I did it! *Laughter* Do you know what it is? I wasn’t great at school. In the Leaving Cert, I got 225 points only. So I barely, barely passed. And then I didn’t go on to third level education. I did foundation maths. You know, I wasn’t necessarily an academic student or someone that would’ve thrived in that situation. But with languages, I love talking. I love chatting, I love expressing myself.

I’m very, very curious about other people. I think that’s one of my passions, just humans, you know? Yeah. And going to Italy and being forced to learn the language, it was just such an easy way to learn, for me. That’s how I learn, how my brain works. After about two or three years, I became fluent. Their sense of humour is very different from the Irish, and it was very curious to me. Because, you know in Ireland, it’s like.. Not ‘dog eat dog’, but they’re merciless like. If you go to the pub with a new hat, or new runners.. Oh my God, when it’s your night, Richard, you know yourself (slang translation – ‘you know how it is’). It’s fucking depressing. So, it was great to go to a different culture and just immerse (myself) in that way of joking. And they have a very stupid sense of humour. Yeah, clowning around. People walking into doors, or slipping on floors, and I love that. I love Dumb & Dumber, I love Jim Carrey. I love real expressive comedy, where it’s a lot of body, and there’s metamorphosis body-wise, you know? That would be right up my street. And then, Bud Spencer, do you know Bud Spencer? I don’t, I’ll look him up.

He starred in Spaghetti Westerns, that was a whole new world to me. I had never seen any of them and that was really fun. And then I just said: ‘Fuck it, I’ll give it a go!’ And then as well, I think because I speak another language, I was more confident, because it was almost like.. Not a mask, but I suppose you’re almost ‘in character’. I’m not expressing myself in English, I’m a very different person when I speak in English to when I speak in Italian. Which I think is true for everyone, they speak in their own way, in a different language. It was really, really fun. I got a good response as well, which was great. That’s mad! Were you involved with the comedy in Milan for a long time? Not the way I am here. The comedy I did when I was in Italy was more, with other comedians online, or in English, ‘cause a lot of the writing I do would’ve been in English. But there it was just stand-up. It wouldn’t be great, the scene (in Milan), to be honest. And they’re kind of up their own asses when it comes to women. Like, people would say: ‘Oh you’re SO funny, for a girl.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you. What a compliment.’ *Kyla laughs*

How generous of you’, yeah. Yeah, yeah. ‘Fuck off’, d’you know what I mean? But I think that was a learning curve for both myself and them. Then I was working in fashion and I had a lot of jobs and I made a lot of money. I paid off my Credit Union loan, which, as an Irish person, you know.. They were hawkin’ you for that, yeah. So yeah, I didn’t do that (comedy) much. I’m a lot more involved with this one here. Is The Comedy Clubhouse at Pub Limerick, or am I mixing things up? It used to be called Pub Limerick, that was the original name. And then it was, PCP, The Piña Colada Palace, because our Piña Colada shots are.. I don’t wanna say ‘world renowned’, but I’m gonna say ‘world renowned’. And now it’s called The Comedy Clubhouse. We were very lucky, ‘cause we had Michelle Wolf in recently, Matteo Lane… These are big, top notch comedians coming in from the States and doing open mic and practising new material, which is an absolute honour. When did you first become interested in cannabis? When I was in Ireland, I used to smoke hash. But I didn’t have any idea about the plant.

And then when I got to Italy, I started smoking weed. I would suffer with anxiety quite badly. And I was prescribed pills and medicine from a Doctor. And although I didn’t feel anxious, I didn’t feel anything.. at all. Yeah, I’ve heard that before (about anxiety medications). And for a creative person, it’s just depressing. I’d prefer to feel a little bit anxious than (feeling like) a zombie, you know? Of course. So I started experimenting with marijuana and different strains and growing when I was in Milan, for myself, just to feel better. And it just grew from there. I’m really big into nature. My grandfather was a fisherman, my dad was always outside too and I’d be with him. Plants, and flowers, and trees. I’m an absolute hippie, Richard. I love it. I love being outside, I love being around it, I love watching it blossom. I find it very fascinating. And for me it began from that. The difference when I realised marijuana is a flower, that it’s actually a flower that comes from the Earth… And it can help me in my physical form, my mental form, my emotional state, my spiritual state.

That, for me, was a very, very interesting and new way of looking at a drug. Because it’s so stigmatised at home. You know, like coke and marijuana are the same thing! And I was so afraid of it, I was so ashamed that I liked it. But then, I’ve worked in Irish pubs my whole life. And I can serve you sixteen pints till you get sick on yourself, and that’s fine. And you can come back the next day and drink again, and that’s fine. But me smoking a joint is a problem. So it’s very confusing as well, when you start to get into the drug itself. Yeah, it’s hypocrisy. It’s not even hypocrisy, it’s just absolute ignorance. And I think people are terrified of that word, ‘ignorance’, but it is. If you’re missing information, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You just don’t know. And I think that’s very, very apparent when people start the debate of ‘drink and drugs’. And ‘the drugs’, that’s what they say, you know? Marijuana, ‘the drugs’. *Kyla laughs* 

Do you have a preferred way to consume cannabis? I love the art of rolling a joint. I absolutely love it. I love being able to roll, I think it’s really cool being able to roll. I know it’s a very basic thing, but for me it’s flex. I think I look cool when I roll a joint. And as well, in Ireland, because we come from such windy places and everyone’s smoking outside, we can roll in any conditions. We’re made for it like. Right, you’re like a hardened joint roller. This is it! Rain or shine, Easterly winds, let me know and I’m gonna fuckin’ get this doobie done, you know? Yeah. What I started doing recently, since I opened Guru, is smoking with a sorrel mix. And it’s actually (supplied by) lads from Dublin, Herbernia they’re called. They sent me over a mix, they’re brilliant. They’re beautiful. I opened it in the club last night and I smoked it with Lemon Kush and Lemon Zkittle. So, anything (with) D-limonene will really stimulate your creativity, and having that lemony taste with the Purple… I can’t remember the name of it. It’s got CBD in it as well though, the tobacco mix. It’s fucking amazing. It’s a really lovely smoke. And it gets rid of the tobacco buzz too, which is always a plus, you know?

Do you see the cannabis debate developing in Ireland much over the next few years? To be honest, I haven’t been following the cannabis debate, because I do think that the divide in Ireland at this point of the marijuana journey in the Western World and in America.. I mean, you cannot sit there and be angry about it. People are so unwilling to listen. I’ve been asked to come on and talk online for activists in Ireland, and I’m like: ‘With all the love and respect in the world, I’m in a place now where it’s progressive and I’m doing something with it.’ But to sit and try and convince Biddy, who’s 55, that a joint isn’t gonna do any harm, it’s just.. I dunno, I haven’t been following it. But I know the stigma. You could have vodka (and) Red Bull for the whole night, right? You could drink shots of vodka and get so, so sick and be so hungover. And you’ll go back to it the weekend after. But people, unfortunately, because of the stigma attached to marijuana, they have one whitey, one time where they feel sick or paranoid when they smoke… They never go back to it, and they have this horrible idea of it that terrifies them.

Instead of trying to fight that stigma, over here, I take another approach. I make sure that whatever I’m giving to people, whatever I’m putting in that they’re consuming, I know exactly what’s in it. And I know why everyone has been like that, and I know what it’s gonna do for your brain and your body and what high you’re gonna get from it. I don’t know how it’s going in Ireland but I do think, personally, that once America does it, we’ll all do it. Can you fucking imagine Ireland with coffee shops? It would be incredible, and it would change our society for the better. Because, let’s face it, we’ve had our issues with drinking. In so many families… Alcoholism has destroyed so many of us, and it has caused so many problems. And I’m like, ‘Why can you sit there and this be socially acceptable for you, because you’re used to it, yet be so closed off to the idea that something comes from the ground. A flower that grows from the ground causes all these problems?

It’s causing problems because the shit that you’re buying off streets and putting into your body now isn’t regulated. We don’t know where it’s being grown, we don’t know what strains are in it. We don’t know if it’s Indica or Sativa, what cannabinoids, what terpenes.. There’s just nothing, there’s no information there. And they’re so angry about it. And I don’t follow it because it annoys me. Prohibitionists will go on all day about all the harms, and the danger it has for our children and communities. But the whole reason it’s like that is because it’s prohibited to begin with. Of course, even decriminalise it! I’m not saying legalise it, just fucking decriminalise it, it is a plant! When I see people getting shitty with me about it, or they try to open dialogue about it, like: ‘Yes, well my nephew smoked weed and then he had schizophrenia!’, I’m like, ‘Do you think if your nephew, who suffered from mental health issues, drank sixteen vodkas, or went out on an Irish night out (and you know what they’re like), or an Irish wedding, you think that wouldn’t have happened?’ The more you demonise it and put it as The Boogeyman, the scarier it becomes. You know what I mean? It’s so frustrating.

And you know what, there’s so many fuckin’ people (and I’m) like, ‘You need to fucking smoke. You need to have an edible and you need to fucking chill.’ *Laughter* You need to calm down. You just need to chill, you need to take it a step back, you know? What resources and supports were available in Barcelona to help set up Club Guru? It wasn’t easy at all. It was probably one of the most difficult things. Now, if you go to Italy, or Spain, anywhere in mainland Europe that’s not an island, the bureaucracy side of things is a fucking shit show. I remember applying for my Passport in Ireland, and after every page they would say, ‘Well done! Next page.’ And I was like, ‘This is so lovely.’ *Laughter* ‘This is so nice, being talked to nicely.’ But here, it’s just an absolute fucking shit show. It was very difficult, very time consuming, it was very expensive for the licenses and stuff. But I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened (to me).

To be able to experience marijuana the way I’m experiencing it now, in such a calm and tranquil environment, is such a different smoke. You get high differently. Yeah. You’re with people who love it, you have these insane conversations. And of course, there’s a bit of stupidity there, because it’s still a drug, it’s still fun. But it’s been great, it’s been so worth it. Did you ever hike up to a hill and it’s a cloudy day and the view is cloudy and you’re like, ‘Fuck this’? *Kyla laughs* Well, it was the opposite of that. At times, it was like: ‘Fuck this hike’. I don’t know how to put it into words, but sometimes I know when something is gonna work. I have a good business mind and I thought: ‘This is gonna work. This is gonna change my life, and I know it is.’ Which is a gift. I’m beyond grateful, it’s something else. I had a group of people yesterday that were trying the non-tobacco Herbernia stuff. I was reading some of your blog posts for people and they were shocked at the things you have to discuss on it, because of the idea in Ireland of marijuana.

I was like, ‘Yeah, these are writers who have to dance around something, dance with the Devil, hide their names.’ It’s fucking insane. And they were shook from it, it’s such bullshit. They were like, ‘Irish people are so fun though!’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ We ARE, but.. It is odd, ‘cause we are a fun-loving people, but we’re just so afraid to embrace weed. I remember the last time I was home before the pandemic, and I met another Instagrammer, she’s a really famous blogger. And I was at about 20k (followers), and she was like: ‘I’m gonna give you some advice. You’re doing really well on Instagram, but you need to stop talking about weed.’ And I said, ‘I absolutely won’t. It’s helped me so much on my journey in life. It’s really, really changed my life and I won’t not talk about it.’ And then the same night, we were out, and she asked: ‘D’you want a line?’ And I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? You’re gonna sit there on your high horse and give me fucking advice and you’re shoving that shit up your nose that’s been smuggled in in someone’s ass? Fuck you.’ It’s such hypocrisy, such bullshit. 

Can you give our readers an outline of how a typical Cannabis Social Club works? You come into the reception to become a member. You have to be recommended, you can’t just walk in. You give me your ID and I put in your ID details. You top up there, so you give a donation to the social club. We’ll say it’s €12 or €15 a gram for the good weed, and you’ve got, whatever, €30 on your membership. And then you’ll say, ‘I’d like to collect four grams of Lemon Haze.’ And then I’m like, ‘That’s absolutely fine, thank you for your donation.’ But it’s all non-profit. You have to say ‘collect’, and ‘receive’, and ‘donate’. There’s no buying, there’s no selling, etc. Why do you think Catalunya, and Spain in general, has a more tolerant, open-minded attitude about weed? In Ireland, there’s about 4.5 million people. And about 2 million are in (Greater) Dublin. So, the rest, there’s no one. We’re living in a place here where there’s shitloads of people. When you have that many people, no one gives a shit if you want to smoke a joint or not smoke a joint, once you’re not causing any distress to anyone.

I think that it’s just, having the amount of people that are in the city, and having that diversity. I’m sitting in the club now and Kobe Smith is from Hawaii, and Matthew Murtha is from Ohio, and there’s another comedian downstairs from Berlin. John (Allis) is from New Zealand. There’s just other shit to do! So it’s not just any old comedy club there, it’s an awesome place! Oh no, no, we are the crème de la crème of European comedy. And I know what you’re thinking: ‘You’re sitting there, licking your own nipples.’ I’m not, this is what other people have said. *Kyla laughs* I love Ireland to the ends of the earth and back again, I really do, it’s my soul. But, in Ireland there’s this thing a lot of the time where we talk about other people, a gossip culture. Whereas here, people just have their own lives, and they’re fulfilled in their lives, and you talk about stuff. About different things. And I know that sounds silly, but I think this society’s way of being and their relationship to marijuana is very hand-in-hand. And the fact that no one gives a fuck. It’s a different thing, it’s just a completely different relationship to the drug.

And people have been around it longer, and they’ve seen the long term effects and realise that it’s nothing. If you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend of a life partner that is a stoner, you are guaranteed they won’t do the dirt. And not because they’re some amazing human being, but because they couldn’t be fucked. It’s a different buzz, you know what I mean? It really, really is. So I don’t think it’s tolerance, I think it’s just not giving a fuck. I think they just have bigger fish to fry than a plant that grows out of the ground. What do you think the Irish government can learn from the Spanish system of Cannabis Social Clubs? I think the Irish government can learn that you can have it in your society and amongst the general population, without it being in your face. Here, it all has to be under recommendation, you have to know someone in the club. So, if you don’t want to have this Amsterdam vibe, where everyone goes to get high, you can do it in a smart way. You can do it in a discreet way, which is fine.

The other day, I was in the club and this guy came in. Fucking ride, gorgeous. He’s a Doctor. But an actual medical Doctor, not a fuckin’ voodoo guy, an actual Doctor. He works in Germany as a GP and they’ve legalised medical marijuana. So, he comes in and he’s telling me about all this stuff. And as I’ve said, when I’ve suffered with anxiety, weed has gotten… Like, I would never say now, ‘I have anxiety’. Or, ‘I’m anxious.’ Nah. I just have this little thing that I can fix with a flower the Earth gives me. That, in itself, is incredible. If we just legalised it for medical reasons, it would be amazing. It would. And I think the only reason that we’re not is ‘cause the big pharmaceutical companies would be out of business, because it would just be so much easier to manage, and so much cheaper to heal people from what Mother Nature gives us. Rather than producing things in labs and putting pills into our bodies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete hippie. I know that medicine is great and thank God for it.

What I put into my body on a daily basis is so important, because (cannabis) is my medicine. It’s the same with food, drugs, liquids. I think that’s just how it has to be. Everything in balance, in moderation. I can’t imagine going home and having that stigma on me, not being able to talk about weed. Being with my family and not being able to go for a smoke. It just seems so silly to me now, you know what I mean? It’s fucked up, but fair play to you for doing what you’re doing. You can talk about it, but many people seem indifferent unless they smoke. People often don’t seem to want to learn more about it. It’s not on their radar. It’s strange to me. I think, if they did know more about it, they’d be all about it then! They’d love it! Me and my mom used to argue over weed all the time. When I first started doing Instagram, and I used to post things about weed, she was like: ‘You’re not gonna get a job, you’re not gonna get an agency, you’re not gonna get a brand.’

And I said: ‘I don’t wanna work for someone who doesn’t believe in what I believe in.’ Yeah. I can make money, I’m a hard worker. I don’t need to make money quick and give up who I am and what I think and what I stand for, for a little bit of extra cash. I’m not willing to do that, you know what I mean? Yeah. And I think that that could be a big reason why Ireland isn’t progressive (with cannabis). Because we are very, keeping up appearances sometimes, ‘cause we’re a small place. If you go on to the gossip websites, about me, ‘cause obviously now I’m a big Instagram guy, (they say) ‘Oh yeah.. Yer one, the slut, with her waccy tobaccy!*Richard giggles* Sex and weed! They’re not insults! The fact that I have good sex and I smoke good weed, that’s not an insult.. You’re not getting it! *Laughter* Thank you so much, Ms. Cobbler! My pleasure! Thanks for everything. I wish you all the best with Club Guru and indeed your comedy career! Thank you so much, bye!

Natalie O’Regan | Cork, Ireland | 01.11.2020

Natalie is a Master of Law candidate at University College Cork with an interest in drug policy reform and harm reduction. Her area of research involves the criminological theory of stigma and its impact on cannabis users. She advocates for decriminalisation as the first step needed in the process of removing such stigma. Twitter: @NatalieORegan1

When did drug policy and harm reduction first catch your interest and why? Well, I think it was Vera Twomey was the first person that kind of sparked my interest in cannabis and the laws surrounding cannabis, and that was even before I studied law. And I remember feeling passionate about her fight to get access to medicinal cannabis for her daughter. And I remember, I think I was living in Wicklow or Dublin at the time and she was walking up to the Dáil and we drove and we stood on the side of the road while she was walking past and I started bawling crying. I didn’t know why I was crying, I didn’t know this woman, I didn’t know her daughter. It kind of resonated with me an awful lot. I think that she made a big impression. Yeah, I think that she kind of turned the tide on the view of cannabis in society, that it wasn’t just a drug anymore. That it is a valid medicine. And I think because she was able to show through her experience that it did help her daughter and that it had more benefits than side-effects, I think that changed a lot of peoples’ attitudes when it comes to cannabis and drug policy in general.

Personally, I have grown up with friends who have used all forms of drugs and I always thought there was a better way that society could respond to them and to respond to drug use in general. And I’ve seen the cycle of drugs, suspended sentences, criminal records, prison sentences, and it just seemed like it was a revolving door. They were going in, they were coming out, they couldn’t get a job, they were going back into prison and I just saw it as a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer’s money. Even where friends did go to treatment for whatever drugs, including cannabis, it was always abstinence-based and it was: “You have to abstain from drug abuse”. And I know a few who it didn’t work for. They’d relapse, they felt shame, they felt guilt, they felt like they were a failure. And it showed, especially in some of my friends, that abstinence is not a measure of your success when you are dealing with drug use. And I just thought the way all of that works is more damaging than helpful, in society.

So that was drug policy. For harm reduction, I left school at sixteen years of age. I went back to college at thirty and I remember the first couple of weeks at UCC [University College Cork] coming across 1Students for Sensible Drug Policy. And it was the first open conversation that I was witness to for safe consumption, what to expect when you’re taking drugs, what are the side effects, what feelings are you gonna have… And as a thirty year old woman who was around drugs in the community growing up, it was shocking that it was the first time I heard of it. It’s the first time this conversation was being had. And it’s not a very open conversation in Ireland, I think. Everything is very hush hush. Yeah, and even on campus you could see you were getting a couple of funny looks from a few people. But I was shocked, thirty years of age and this was the first time I was actually hearing a conversation about drug use. 

Do you have any particular examples of drug policy or harm reduction that you came across in your studies that would have very strongly formed your views on both?

I suppose the first example of a different drugs policy that shocked me was the typical example of going to Amsterdam. I think it’s a kind of a right of passage at this stage, to go to Amsterdam. And I remember the narrative around cannabis and drug use in general in Ireland was very, very negative. When I went to Amsterdam, it was legally purchased and openly consumed… Before going over there, I had an image in my head that you’d have drug addicts on the street and all the really bad social consequences that you would hear of that surrounds the narrative of the use of drugs in Ireland. But there was none of that, there were no social consequences that you could see. People were openly buying and consuming it. And I think when you look at the laws in Ireland and everywhere else, these social consequences are the grounding of this prohibition. This is why we have to prohibit it.

But when it’s not prohibited, or when it is legally consumed in Amsterdam, there are none of those social consequences that surround the narrative in Ireland, and that really, really was an eye-opener.

Where do you think cannabis users face the most stigmatisation in their lives, we’ll say in Ireland, for example? In my opinion, it goes through every aspect of a cannabis user’s life. And in a way it almost has been weaponised in the war on drugs. It’s been used to shame people, to tell people that it’s wrong. For external stigma, you have the general public’s attitude towards drug users and cannabis users. “It’s your own fault”, there’s blame-worthiness attached. They don’t want drug users living in their community. It’s a major barrier to employment with the criminal records and Garda vetting. It even affects accessing health. You’re going to hide your cannabis use from health professionals for fear of shame, for fear of stigma. And research has shown that health professionals, nurses, Doctors – they are very prejudicial and stigmatising toward drug users. 

Another thing that was surprising in my research was that, while training or practising, education on drug use is key to removing this stigma. That attitudes of health professionals changed dramatically once they were educated on drug use. Do you think that’s more of a systemic thing with third level education for people studying medicine, that the problem mainly lies there? Or that it’s more a case of what your parents and other authority figures would have said as you’re growing up?

I think education is something that’s not being utilised enough in all areas. From Doctors, GPs, nurses… Educating the young, the public in general.. I think education is a key that’s not being utilised properly. And when you’re talking about nurses and Doctors training… During their training in third level education, and qualifying to be a nurse or a Doctor, there is no training whatsoever on substance use. That’s astonishing, really. Even GPs have to get specialised training to be able to prescribe methadone to their patients. Unless a GP is going to specialise in it.. It’s disgraceful, why are you not getting trained in it, if you’re going to come across it in everyday life? There’s a lot of drug users in Ireland. And the fact that you get people addicted to drugs who arrive in the emergency room on a pretty regular basis from overdoses. It’s amazing that they’re not given that training by default. You’d think even in an emergency setting they’d get a little bit of training ‘cause they’re going to come across it but there’s nothing! It’s quite shocking.

Have you personally become aware of, or witnessed, examples of cannabis user stigma? If you look at the world it’s everywhere. From movies, to TV, to the language that people use like your stoners, your unproductive, your undesired, your lazy, like Cheech & Chong. It’s the typical example of “That’s what stoners are, that’s what cannabis users are.” And even in media portrayals, the use of the language and the way that they frame cannabis users is often in a very bad light and that reinforces the negative perception that the public holds. So people think: “Oh, I’m legitimised in holding my bad opinion of cannabis users.” Personally, I’ve witnessed friends who have smoked cannabis that have been rejected by their family, kicked out of home, rejected by the whole community. And friends who have been convicted of personal possession that wouldn’t have been able to work in their chosen fields because of their Garda vetting and their criminal records.

I think it is everywhere if you look for it and I think I wouldn’t have noticed how much of it was there until I started my research. Yeah. I think a lot of people would be surprised how much that can affect someone’s life, even if they’re caught with a small amount of cannabis. Like, caught with a joint you get a suspended sentence, but you still have a criminal record. Yeah. Why do you believe that decriminalisation is a crucial part of removing the stigma faced by users? I don’t think it is the final solution, I don’t think that it’s the absolute solution. But it is the first step. Ideally, I’d love to see full legalisation but I think we’re a good few years away from that yet in Ireland. If you remove the criminality that’s associated with cannabis use and remove the criminal label, you remove the legitimised stigma that the public holds. So, once the public perception is no longer legitimised, they feel that their opinion is no longer accepted so it may allow people to think again and have another look at cannabis users in general and maybe change their opinion. 2Portugal’s main aim of their decriminalisation was to remove the stigma, so by removing this, they changed the public perception which is very slow to change, but it is changing. They’ve increased the uptake in health and treatment options. They have increased the public perception of cannabis users in general. The public, as I said, it is very slow to change. But I think once everything around the public changes, it’s like a default that the public will have to change eventually.

It’s been said that racist fear-mongering in relation to immigrant minorities and their use of cannabis was a core deciding factor behind the original prohibition of cannabis. Would you agree that that was the case? It can be said. There have been articles on the original prohibition in America and how it was targeted at the jazz scene, that they were all marijuana smokers. But I think besides racist fear-mongering.. I think in general, society needs to label those that they do not want in their society. And they need to label them as outsiders, as undesirables. That creates a kind of “Them Vs. Us” attitude. “We are not like them, we don’t want them in our community, we are better than them”. By labelling people as undesirables, those that feel that they are at the higher end of society are able to legitimise their feelings towards the lower end of society.

And I think through prohibition, this label became formalised through the criminal justice approach and the prohibition of cannabis users. So I wouldn’t break it down to race or minorities or ethnicities, but I think it can be said in every society that there is a labelling process of undesirables and that’s where it came from. It just grows in society.

Do you believe that there is a high level of ethnic profiling in Europe, in terms of stop and search procedures by police checking for cannabis possession? I don’t think that it can be broken down to ethnicity alone. I don’t think that is the underlying reason for profiling. I’d say the stigma and negative perception of cannabis users can attach to a whole community as well as the individual. So anyone from a certain area will be under suspicion for drug use if there’s high drug use in the area. Like, here in Cork you can drive through certain areas and you’re stopped and you get searched ‘cause the Gardaí will use the excuse that there’s drug dealing in the area. Again, I think it comes down to labelling and stereotypes where you need to label the undesirables and this is what the undesirables look like. This is where they live, this is how they act, and that’s why it came, I think. In my opinion anyway.

What are some of the more promising examples of drug laws around the world, from your perspective? I think the increase in legalisation across the world is taking strides in the last number of years. There’s more and more countries legalising, whether it’s for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes. Even in the recent New Zealand referendum, although they didn’t vote for recreational cannabis, it was surprising that almost 49% of the country voted ‘Yes’. So, even that shows that a good campaign of information and education to the public has merits and can be beneficial. The example that comes up all the time for promising drug laws is Portugal’s decriminalisation. As I said, it’s not the be all and end all, it is not the final solution or the brilliant solution that everyone may think it is, but it has shown success. And it means that a generation of cannabis users will no longer be criminalised. From there, you can step up. That will have knock-on consequences, they won’t be criminalised. We’ll say, if it was in Ireland, they wouldn’t have a Garda vetting problem, they wouldn’t have a criminal record. And that little thing of removing criminalisation can have knock-on consequences far beyond anything you would originally think of. 

What is your opinion on the implementation of MCAP [Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme] in Ireland so far? I’m not really very up to speed on the medicinal aspect of it legal-wise, because I just steered away from it in my research. But, just in general, it needs to be expanded to more illnesses and more issues. You were talking to Alicia Maher recently. An amazing girl, an absolutely fantastic woman. Incredible. She stopped taking thirty tablets a day, I think she was taking? And it’s all cured by a plant you can grow yourself, and that is cheap as chips when you grow it yourself! In Ireland, she wouldn’t qualify for that programme. So, I do think it needs to be expanded to more illnesses. I also think that access to the programme needs to be a valid first option when you do go to the Doctor, where a patient can choose their treatment. Currently, it’s available only when all other options are exhausted. And I don’t think that’s right, I think it should be available as a valid first option. Also, in terms of access to filling your prescriptions in Ireland… There’s a lot of issues around it. People have to travel, they’re finding it hard to get their prescription filled… You shouldn’t have to travel to get your prescription filled. If you are legally entitled to it, you should be able to get it in a pharmacy, where you get everything else. And also it needs to be available on the medical card. 

You need to make it a viable option for people, you need to make it a viable choice for people. And when you don’t include it under the medical card scheme, or have a reimbursement for it, it is a barrier to a lot of people who would benefit from it. Yeah, and even the amount you have to pay up front to access it when you do qualify.… I think it needs to be made open to a lot more people. How do you envision drug policy, and in particular cannabis policy, taking shape in Ireland in the next decade? Well thankfully my name isn’t Mystic Meg, so I’m not very good at prediction! Laughter But I do think the first step of what we were promised when people were voting in the general election was a 3Citizens Assembly. That will at least guide the Oireachtas on what is the general public opinion and the general attitude towards cannabis in Ireland. I think without the Citizens Assembly, it’s gonna be the blind leading the blind in terms of making legislation for any form of cannabis policy in the future. Without some form of engagement with the public of Ireland on what the attitudes are, and what the issues are, through a Citizens Assembly, the Oireachtas are not going to do right, in my opinion. I think they’re probably gonna mess it up more than they will fix it, if they don’t. The Irish government’s current drug policy claims that it’s health led and health approached and health focused, but it’s still administered through the criminal justice approach. 

So even in August 2019 I think, they announced that for personal possession of cannabis, for the first and maybe the second time, being caught would not result in a criminal conviction. But yet again, it is still administered through the criminal justice approach, regardless. Yes, you’re staying away from the Courts, but it’s still an adult caution, you still have contact with the Guards, you still have contact with the criminal justice system. And I don’t think that needs to happen, I think that it was just laziness on the part of whoever was writing the drug policy. I’d love to see decriminalisation in Ireland as a first step. Hopefully legalisation in the future, but I think we’re about ten or fifteen years away from that yet I’d say. 

How do you think current Irish government policies in terms of harm reduction practices could be improved? In terms of cannabis, in general, there’s very little direction in the national drug strategy and in documents themselves, in relation to harm reduction. The dominant conversation around harm reduction in cannabis is usually about administration and mixing it with tobacco and mental health issues. So, I think a significant investment in mental health is needed in general in Ireland. Not specifically down to any cannabis side-effects, but investment in treatment, in alternatives, in education are some things that are greatly needed in Ireland. For example, education in the national drug strategy is limited to school settings and youth services, so this excludes a lot of people who are not in an education setting. I left school at sixteen, I didn’t go back to college till I was thirty. The first drug conversation I had was at thirty years of age. 

Health – there’s no discussion around the everyday health of a drug user in the national drug strategy. As I was saying a while ago with the GPs, they’re not trained, they’re not informed on drug uses and that has consequences on a cannabis user’s life. If they don’t feel that their GP is aware enough, they’re going to hide the fact that they use cannabis from their GP, which may have an impact on whatever medical issues they have. And then you may have other prescriptions that you’re using alongside it and you don’t know what you’re doing properly… Yep. I think that stigma is a valid harm of cannabis use. We don’t have the high risk of overdose like heroin users, or of contracting illnesses from sharing drug-taking equipment. We don’t have that risk. And I think there is an overlook of how important stigma is on a cannabis user’s life. It is a valid harm, it needs to be minimised. It needs to be discussed first and foremost. Even in the national drug strategy, decriminalisation is mentioned once, and I don’t think stigma is mentioned at all, at all, throughout the whole strategy. So, without incorporating that into your conversation of harm reduction, you’re not gonna get anywhere. Especially in terms of cannabis use. It’s not compassionate basically, it doesn’t think about it on a human level. No, it doesn’t. It’s very rigid, departmental, focused. There’s no compassionate conversation around it.

In terms of the harder, more dangerous drugs, like heroin, and people who are addicted to those substances… What suggestions would you make for harm reduction with those. Are we severely lacking in safe injection centres and facilities like that? Yes. What would be the first steps to start to deal better with severe addiction issues like that? They promised safe injection zones left, right and centre. But a lot of the backlash and the rhetoric for them is the ‘not in my back garden’ mentality. Nobody wants 200 heroin users turning up on a daily basis in their back garden, I completely understand that. But, if a community has an overwhelming heroin addiction, it needs to be addressed. So, we need safe injection zones, sterile equipment, needle exchanges. But I think one thing that’s not being discussed enough around heroin users is Naxolone. You need training, you need a prescription. It’s not available for the people who are out on the street, who are in the community of heroin users. It’s not available to homeless services, who go out in the evening. The Guards walking down the street, why don’t they have Naxolone on them? You have to get a prescription, you have to get it filled, you have to get training, licences… It’s a life-saving option that’s there, but it’s too difficult to get access to, or to be able to use it effectively.

Could you give some examples of some of the more shocking or striking examples of data you discovered over the course of your Masters research? I always figured that cannabis use was… not prevalent, but I always presumed that there would be a high level of cannabis use. But, some of the figures I came across in the European report, millions of people in Europe are using cannabis! It is the most widely-used drug and it’s far beyond heroin use, cocaine use, prescription abuse… And, I think, for something that is so prevalent and so widely used there’s not enough focus on it. The focus is always on the lower-use more dangerous drugs. I think it was 92 million in the European Union who use cannabis in their lives. Even when you look at prison numbers in Portugal during my research. They had the highest proportion of drug users in prison in 1999, to having the lowest in 2008. I think they decreased nearly 50% in the first 8-10 years of decriminalisation. The shock of how many people were criminalised for cannabis use. The drop of 50% can show you that that many people did not need to be criminalised. It’s amazing. It’s a bit puzzling why more countries in Europe don’t try to emulate their success. Even if you look at the figures by the 4Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência – CDT) in Portugal… 80-90% of the cases that came before the CDT had no evidence of addiction. They were not addicted to drugs, they were recreational users.

I always had the thought in my head, that usage does not equal addiction. And I think those figures from the CDT really cemented that view of: “Just because you use a drug, does not mean you’re addicted and you need help”. What was the focus of your research paper? What was your main area of interest? The title I ended up with was: “Blunt Trauma – Effective Stigma on Cannabis Users and Why We Need to Decriminalise Personal Possession”. Okay. I wanted a pun title. I was playing around with so many puns, I was absolutely determined to get one in there, to keep my Supervisor happy, ‘cause she begged me: “Please get a pun in the title, I love my puns!” Richard Laughs And she came up with a brilliant one, she called it: “Nip it in the Bud”. And I was like, “Oh that’s so good, but I can’t use it, it’s yours! I really have to come up with my own one now, but you’ve taken the best one!” Natalie laughs Yours is better, but they’re both good! So, I titled it “Blunt Trauma”, which I was proud of. 

Was that research paper focused on Ireland, or was it more international? It was kind of a happy mix of everything. I explained the international overlook of where Ireland is in terms of flexibility and room for manoeuvre in international law. I discussed the changing attitude internationally, from back in the United Nations Special Assembly in 1998 about advocating for a drug-free world, which you’re never going to get, to harm reduction and decriminalisation in 2016. And it has moved away from the fact that we’re never going to achieve a drug-free world. They were probably a bit optimistic! And I think the most striking part was looking at 5Kofi Annan. In 1998, he was a real advocate for a drug-free world, and he completely changed his narrative by the time 2016 had come around. He had joined the Global Drugs Policy Commission. He completely changed his view on international drug policy and it was quite refreshing to see that… no offence… even someone at that age can change their mind. You can be educated and you can change your opinion! 

Natalie, it’s been a pleasure, thanks a million for your time. Thanks very much! I’ll leave you with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result! I think that sums up drug policy perfectly in Ireland!

References:

1 Information on Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP): https://ssdp.org/ssdp-history/

2 A commentary on Portugal’s decriminalisation of drugs, by The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/upshot/portugal-drug-legalization-treatment.html

3 A piece on the Irish Citizens Assembly on Drugs by The Irish Examiner:

https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-40042595.html

4 Dissuasion commissions are mentioned in this BBC article on Portugal’s decriminalisation of drugs:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8106689.stm

5 Kofi Annan’s opinion on the illegality of drugs: https://www.drugpolicy.org.au/kofi_annan_time_to_legalize