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!

 

Eoin Long of The Cannabis Review

In The Cannabis Review, Eoin Long talks with leading figures in commercial cannabis. The show has a stated aim of educating viewers while clarifying ‘some of the sectors and topics of interest in the global cannabis industry’. The YouTube channel launched in February of 2021, where he has interviewed the likes of Dr. Peter Grinspoon, Mitchell Osak, JP O’Brien of Little Collins CBD, Jim Weathers of Puff N’ Stuff, Matthew O’Brien of The Green Paper and many others from around the globe.

What inspired you to start The Cannabis Review?

It was initially set up two years ago as a project for one of my companies, and it ended up turning into a great source of data and information and a way to connect with industry leaders.

I got to realise, ‘I don’t need money to pay for this to be made and I know how to do everything myself’, so I just started cherry-picking people of great knowledge in the industry I wanted to learn from. I thought: ‘What do I want to know about the sectors that are going to be the areas of interest?’ Over the course of time, I’ve built up a pretty strong global network and an ability to see what’s coming around the corner. The aim of The Cannabis Review is to help educate and inform both the consumer and the entrepreneur in the industry, in any way I can.

In your view, how strong is cannabis activism in Ireland?

Activism in Ireland is very strong. The folks that do it need to be commended; Martin, for example, who does Martin’s World, Natalie O’Regan, Cork Cannabis Activist Network, JP & Íde at Little Collins, Jim at Puff n’ Stuff, the Crainn folks plus a host of other determined people. There’s a lot of work they are doing now where they are putting themselves at risk, and most are not getting any financial reward for doing this. They are doing this because they believe it is the right thing. That has to be commended, no matter what side of the fence you sit on. For a businessman like myself who wants the industry legalised, you need more people like that. I would like to point out the likes of Luke Flanagan [independent], Gino Kenny [People Before Profit], Neasa Hourigan [The Green Party], and Lynn Ruane [independent]. These politicians will be remembered and appreciated for a long time for the work they are doing to help our community.

I find The Cannabis Review more accessible than many other shows of a similar nature, due to its length. Was that a strategic decision on your part?

It was, yes. I had looked at a lot of the shows and felt this was a more suitable model for educating myself and fellow entrepreneurs. You manage to get straight to the point this way. The guests have also commented on how nice the short time frame is and that it doesn’t become boring or over-complicated. There are very few good cannabis shows or podcasts out there and I aim to build TCR up over the coming years. The way you get good at something is by talking to people who are very knowledgeable in specific disciplines and that helps you round off your structure of knowledge. That is the way I have treated this show for myself. If other people are benefiting from watching the episodes, then that is great. I’ve been doing The Cannabis Review for two years and talking to some of the biggest CEOs in the world. And I’m only scratching the surface of how big this industry will be.

If you had to choose a few guests from The Cannabis Review who you found to be the most interesting personally, who would they be and why?

The number one is definitely Dr. Peter Grinspoon, who is a medical GP. The episode I did with him was Cannabis and Pain, and I think everybody seems to have liked that one. That one had the most knowledgeable medical professional I have spoken with to date. Somebody who is bonafide. His father [Lester] was in this space as well. He was just one of those people where you couldn’t not respect or be in awe of the information he possessed. There’s another gentleman then called Matt Lamers, who covers international business for MJBiz Daily. Matt, to me, is the best source of cannabis information and knowledge in the business world, especially when it comes to the Canadian MSOs. He’s one of the smartest and nicest guys, I had him on the show as well and everything that he posts is pretty much always on point. 

For you, what have been the most exciting developments in the cannabis industry over the past few years?

I think biotechnology will change the game to a degree, with the use of microorganisms capable of fermenting cannabinoids in bioreactors, exactly how they make beer. I think that’s the future for a lot of the ingredients side of the industry – a lot of the activity is going to end up being in that space, due to potential scalability, purity, safety of the end product, IP-able methods and the price per litre versus a farm grown method. The second thing I would probably say is, New York. One cannot underestimate how important New York’s legalisation is for Ireland. Whatever about Germany and Malta starting their processes, you still see unclear language from the three coalition Parties in Germany trying to get this over the line, but New York has moved swiftly, with stores opening in Autumn or earlier. They have enacted a lot of public service projects, in terms of people with weed-related convictions who are now allowed to apply for cannabis licences.

There is a lot of good being drafted into their Bills and the people in charge of the various departments seem to be very smart. Plus, Ireland and New York have a special relationship. I think the more it grows over there, where you will start seeing that it’s four to five billion a year in turnover, you are going to start seeing moves being made here. The capitalist model is to expand and to grow and to acquire new consumers and new markets. We are in a good space. Germany is going to legalise recreational use and New York is almost ready to open with their industry. Slowly but surely, those big companies will begin to want to take more territory and to start moving towards Ireland.

I see Ireland being a gateway into Europe for a lot of the North American companies and I think that’s the way Ireland should be positioning itself. We have got a very skilled, intelligent young workforce over here. There’s a reason Google and all major North American companies operating in Europe are headquartered here and I don’t think the cannabis companies will be any different. That is not to say we won’t have our own hugely successful global cannabis companies. That is for certain, in my opinion. Who those entrepreneurs will be is still up for grabs.

Are there any stand-out cannabis companies you see as having especially exciting potential, in Europe or further afield?

There are a good number of exciting cannabis companies, and you kind of need to fine-tune it down into each sector – is it the edibles market, the vape category, hemp and construction? There’s Hempflax. They are a pretty amazing company that I think is going to revolutionise industrial hemp in construction. BioHarvest Sciences can make the cannabis plant in a bioreactor without using cultivation methods. You have Prūf Cultivar in Oregon and The Werc Shop in California. Bhang is another, Cann Drinks will be a global brand. For Europe, the market is so early that I believe the most exciting companies are still to come. What I’m looking forward to seeing is the first real brand that comes out of Ireland. I think Ireland has got a Kerrygold or a Guinness [of cannabis] in it, and I’m looking forward to seeing who gets that up and running. Look what we did with alcohol, do you think we cannot do the same in this industry?

Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how soon that can become a reality. It often feels like our government drags their heels with all of this.

Yeah, but this is another thing that people are getting annoyed about. People are getting annoyed at politicians who know nothing, you know? Richard laughs I feel sorry for Frank Feighan [Minister with responsibility for drug policy] now at this stage, with the amount of abuse that he seems to get on Twitter. But at the same time, they’ve signed up for this game. They’re public servants, so everyone’s within their rights to be contacting them and telling them how they feel about a specific topic. And that’s just tough, they have got to take it. But at the same time, I think there needs to be a level of realism about who the decision makers are. You hardly think Stephen Donnelly is going to be the Minister for Health in three, five years time? When the next election comes, there will be a shuffle in the cabinet and he won’t be in that same position. So, to waste all the efforts on that individual.. he’s not doing it within three years, not from what I can see.

Barring it becoming this new piece of their election campaign, where one of the smarter Parties picks it up. Until we get to the next election, we won’t know. And that’s why a Citizens’ Assembly can be pushed off until then, because the election campaign comes around mid-2023 for the 2025 election. You’ll have a good year and a half of whether they are going to bring that into a campaign that they will go around trying to get the young vote with, or if it will just be disregarded by the Parties again. I reckon that by 2025, New York will be three years legal. There will be [cannabis industry] people chomping at the bit to get into this country. Anybody with any sort of common sense in our government will support this industry then. We know the Revenue people would love to have the tax revenue from this. We know a lot of the people in the Department of Justice would like to lessen the petty crime cases, which are a nonsensical waste of time and resources for Gardaí. And it appears that a number of influential individuals in politics who are outdated in their thinking process are able to hold this whole process back.

How do you think cannabis misinformation in the media can be more effectively tackled?

The mainstream media really have no clue about the cannabis industry outside of 420 and the munchies and the usual stereotypes. They just write pieces based on second hand information. People on both sides react to it and they have succeeded in their job as a modern journalist, which is to get a reaction, good or bad. Journalism used to be about informing the public with real information. Tell me when have you ever seen a real investigative journalism piece on cannabis in Ireland? The other day, RTÉ posted an article about seized plants that were not even grown, which Gardaí claimed had an estimated value of €200,000. It was so embarrassing to see that. Who in their right mind cleared that article? It was a downright lie, published seemingly without question by our national broadcaster.

There are a number of good sites popping up to help with cannabis misinformation and one of my recent guests, Professor Dan Bear, has a new site & Twitter account – I would suggest that people check those out. Ireland definitely needs a source which calls out misinformation in this manner. 

When do you see cannabis being fully legalised in Ireland, realistically?

How far down the line do you think that will be?

I would say 2027/2028. If you go to the next election, let’s say that is in 2025.. Let us say there is a Party going: ‘Right, we’re legalising cannabis.’ And they win. It’s at least one to two years of paperwork and taxation laws being constructed. What department is it under? What are the taxes and laws? So, they’re going to have two years of politicking, and everybody figuring things out. They are going to need a cannabis board, they are going to need professionals in all the different sectors, they are going to need to start the licensing process. Cannabis Compliance Ireland, the lobbying firm that I co-founded – we already have all that built and ready to go. We sent a proposal document to all the government officials, about three years ago, for how to develop and enforce a legal cannabis industry in Ireland. I have talked to all the Department heads over in Colorado, California, Oregon, New York plus many more about how to design licensing and taxation systems. So we have all that information already, in our pocket. 

Cannabis Compliance Ireland, when everything gets legalised… There won’t even be a company close to the amount of information, data and connections that we’ll have built up over time for our country. You’ll be ready at the outset. That’s five years experience so far, we’ve got multiple databases built out and we have already designed numerous types of industry policy and taxation papers that could be used in Ireland. If the government decides to legalise cannabis we will have everything ready for them to utilise from taxation to licensing and duty, to import, export, financial support and social equity programmes. We have all the boring information and policy that will make the Irish industry ready to go. I believe Ireland has some of the best entrepreneurs in the world and our island will be the gateway to Europe for all the North American companies in this sector. It is up to us to build the companies and services to compete.

Beyond contacting local TDs, what else would you advise people to do to get the cannabis discussion off the ground properly in Ireland? 

Well, first and foremost, I think we need to start having good events. And that’s hopefully something that we’re going to start looking at at the start of 2023, maybe starting with some of the great guests we have already had on The Cannabis Review. I am going to bring over a select few from a couple of different industries and disciplines and invite a number of politicians and policymakers along as well. It will show everybody that this is how you create a company in this industry and these are the experts within a couple of different disciplines who are going to give a brief presentation and outline what needs to be done to be successful.

Because this is business now. It’s not the cannabis industry, it is business. And to run any business you need to know your product, your consumers and the rules and regulations. You need to be researching and developing your ideas and your products continuously, because there’s no guarantee for success in anything. But the harder you work at something, the better a chance you’ll have of it working. I can’t wait to hear your updates on those events. By the way, I am going to be turning The Cannabis Review into its own media website soon. It will have its own bi-weekly newsletter. It will be a source of news and information on the New York, Irish and European industries, with a section for stocks, op-eds, top weekly stories and all of that sort of stuff.

That’s what we need more than anything in Ireland, a de facto source of information that is consistently up to date. That sounds great, best of luck with that! It sounds like you’ve got very exciting plans for the future. We’re looking forward to hearing about those as they develop. Thanks again and take care! See you!

My Introduction to Cannabis

Richard reminisces on his year in San Francisco, where he embraced cannabis use as part of the cultural experience and realised what he had been missing out on for years. [All photos below were taken by the author]

In my teens, I bought into the ‘cannabis as a gateway drug‘ myth. I was hesitant when it came to drinking alcohol as well. When schoolmates began dabbling with booze, I wondered why suddenly they always felt the need to be seen with it, getting drunk at every other get together. I wasn’t really religious, but in my head I thought I’d probably keep the pledge I’d made on my Confirmation not to drink alcohol, as a discipline thing. That fell by the wayside at age seventeen, when I got sick of abstaining during a music festival. But my lack of personal interest in weed would continue through college. Certain school friends and acquaintances became very interested in it during those years and were harder for me to get a hold of socially, although this was partially due to differing life circumstances and social circles. When I was with them I had no issue with the smoking, but it often felt like we were on different wavelengths (which of course, we were!) This was partially because I was still a bit wary of weed, as I had been taught to be. I once had a foreign roommate on a work placement abroad who was fairly annoying a lot of the time, and he was more or less always stoned. On one of his first days there, he lay despairing on his bed for ages because he was out of ganja. It must’ve been a rare supply gap for him, but being around him for months didn’t necessarily sell me on smoking weed either! (If you were curious, he got hooked up with more through a workmate later that day).

Flash forward some time to a year where I was living in San Francisco, California. I worked at a few bars within a larger bar company. Seemingly everyone in the industry there enjoyed a regular smoke and those who partook often had such positive, upbeat auras that I was beginning to think that maybe I should try some! One night as we were cleaning and closing a bar I worked at, it came up in conversation that I’d never tried weed and my workmate promptly told me that I’d be smoking with him and the manager after work. After a while, we stood around chatting on Columbus Avenue and passed a joint around. I’ll always remember a faintly tingly, numb sensation I started feeling along my upper neck to where it connects with the head, as the high began kicking in. It was a pleasant little signal I’d anticipate every time I smoked. As it hit me, my enthusiasm for our conversation was amplified and I felt a general sense of calm. Gradually, I found it harder to make sense of all that was being said in conversation and I felt concerned that I’d start sticking out like a sore thumb. I probably made a few semi-relevant remarks and jokes as vain attempts to stay part of a conversation that suddenly felt alien to me. It got to a point where I decided I was too confused to keep track and that I’d order an Uber home. I must’ve toked too much, too soon… Regardless, I loved the relaxing, cerebral new buzz I gained from cannabis that evening and I looked forward to getting high again.

I discovered it was fairly commonplace at work for staff and managers to enjoy cheekies (half shots of tequila, mezcal, whiskey or other spirits, but seldom upper shelf stuff) to keep morale high, particularly during busier shifts. We’d do a toast, knock ’em back and get right back to work. A few nights each week after closing time, staff would hang out at a company bar after hours with the music up really loud, often with workmates from other company bars stopping by. We’d drink Millers High Life stubbies, smoke weed and perhaps indulge in more cheekies. When she heard I’d developed an interest in weed, one colleague who would become a close friend of mine gave me a number, saying to text it with my first name and to explain that it was she who gave me the number, before asking: ‘What’s on the menu today?’ Upon doing so, I was sent a menu du jour with the flower strains and concentrates on offer and how much they’d cost in different amounts. This menu changed each day and I’ll never forget placing my first order and asking where I could meet the dealer, only for him to say: ‘Where can I meet you?’ How considerate! These weren’t shady, dodgy-looking guys either – they were ordinary-looking fellas on bikes. It really says something about how widespread cannabis is there, when buying from the black market guys is that convenient!

Though not without its social issues, San Francisco is a beautiful place (as are the breathtaking natural parks and coastal drives of greater California, but that’s another story!) Whether you’re trekking around Ocean Beach and the Sunset district, eating out in North Beach or Chinatown, browsing the hippie-themed Haight-Ashbury district or exploring the beautiful, vast Golden Gate Park (20% bigger than New York’s Central Park), there’s a lot to it. Cannabis gifted me another level of appreciation for these places. There are scenic views from parks and hills there that I’ll always think back on fondly. But I didn’t just smoke up sociably – getting high at home to derive more wonder from my introvert pastimes had great benefits too. I’d really zone in on the ambience of music and all the intricacies of its production. Music such as Anderson Paak‘s soulful Malibu album, which I got to see live at The Fillmore theatre, or A Tribe Called Quest‘s long-awaited comeback album, We Got It From Here I would become super-immersed in YouTube, films and handheld video games, and I’d feel so grateful for all of the marvellous, complex visual art humans have created. Food would taste more mouth-watering than ever before. Add to all of this the agreeable weather and the generally friendly people of the Bay Area and it’s an ideal place to develop an appreciation of cannabis.

Because I never liked cigarettes, I had no experience rolling papers and was therefore terrible at it, so I opted to buy a pipe. I never felt any urge to mix tobacco with my weed and to this day I still don’t use it; even if it does extend the life of a limited weed supply, or allow for a less potent smoke. Sadly, here in Ireland the weed is criminally expensive (forgive the pun!) and you never have any knowledge of what it is you’re buying. This is thanks to the Irish government and their insistence on upholding prohibition, where weed and many other drugs are left completely unregulated! I’ve heard horror stories about the weed here too. One example would be weed being sprayed with an unknown ‘hairspray-like’ chemical to make it extra sparkly, as a false indicator of quality…

I don’t want to smoke that!!

If there’s anything I took from my year in San Francisco, it’s the realisation that countless kind, intelligent, productive, ambitious, hard-working and athletic people live their lives successfully while benefitting from cannabis, often using it on a regular basis. While I was there, it began dawning on me how ridiculous and immoral it is for authorities to continue demonising this plant and making it out to be a dark, nefarious substance that will somehow lead you down a road of self-destruction. In my experience, this plant helps people to connect. It helps people to tolerate and get through difficulties. It can help mentally, physically, medicinally. In essence, it helps with our enjoyment and appreciation of life. Because of this, I’ll always be thankful of San Francisco for such an enlightening introduction.

Sinn Féin, People Before Profit & Drugs

According to the Party’s 2020 Manifesto, Sinn Féin believe that drug ‘and alcohol’ misuse (can we please start including alcohol under the umbrella of ‘drugs’?) are primarily public health issues. Harm reduction is stated to be a guiding principle for future ‘drug and alcohol’ strategies for Sinn Féin, but then so is ‘prevention’, which suggests that they still hold a mainly prohibitionist stance when it comes to drugs. Moving on from this, they make the very important point that mental health and addiction are almost exclusively treated as separate conditions in Ireland. They mention how currently some people seeking mental health care are being refused that care due to an existing issue with, or even a history of substance abuse’. They talk of how harms in society ‘by drugs’ and the criminal gangs that control their distribution must be tackled, which to me looks like Sinn Féin don’t appear to fundamentally understand the root cause of virtually all drug-related woes in Irish society – prohibition resulting in unregulated, unpredictable, and unsafe black market drugs! Notably, among their list of priorities in terms of drugs is a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy, to ensure that nobody is refused treatment because of an addiction.

I would sincerely hope that no medical professional in this day and age would turn someone away without some form of treatment when they’re in need, just because they’re a drug user. It feels strange that this should have to be introduced as legislation, but it highlights the stigma that’s still faced by drug users in Ireland. Alongside this, Sinn Féin importantly suggest amending existing legislation surrounding the dual diagnosis of mental health and addiction. They suggest investing an extra 12 million euro in drug task forces and the national drug strategy, as well as dramatically ramping up recruits for An Garda Síochána, bringing their numbers to over 16,000. This, to me, sounds a bit like throwing money at a problem and hoping it’ll go away. The reality is that people will always use drugs, the illegal drugs supply will never go away and drugs will remain dangerously unpredictable so long as gangsters are in control of an unregulated illegal supply.

I could not find a 2020 Manifesto document on the People Before Profit website, but they did have separate policy documents available, including one on drugs policy. Although this file was created five months after last year’s February election, I’m assuming that it’s fairly unchanged overall from the drugs policy they published prior to it. Among the bullet points on their opening summary page is ‘Education to replace criminalisation as a method of deterrence’. This seems to be in line with Gino Kenny‘s proposed Bill on cannabis legalisation, which is expected to be introduced in Dáil Éireann next month.

Crucially for harm reduction, PBP mention the establishment of safe injection rooms, pill testing centres, and a State body to scientifically examine drugs that people take socially. In addition, they suggest highly regulated and supervised State-run distribution services (i.e. needle exchange programmes), which to me would make a lot of sense. ‘A move towards the Portuguese Model to undermine criminal gangs‘ is stated as an aim, which is a significant step down from Gino’s aim of full legalisation. I’m not really sure how decriminalisation would undermine organised crime gangs, because after all, they would retain total control of the drug supply in that scenario. I wish Irish political Parties in general were more courageous about having the conversation about full legalisation, rather than aiming only for the half measure that is decriminalisation.

PBP rightly mention allowing medicinal cannabis use for chronic pain conditions; countless people suffering with chronic pain can attest to its importance in their lives. As has been the norm in Irish politics they don’t dare to mention non-medicinal use, which is underwhelming in my view, given all the scientific data globally that shows that legal recreational weed is perfectly safe and reasonable. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that some people argue that all use of cannabis is medicinal, regardless of whether it has been labelled recreational or not, and they are welcome to hold that opinion. Ending page one, PBP say: ‘Criminalising drug users is a failed approach. People Before Profit favours a healthcare approach to drug taking and education rather than criminalisation.’ They proceed to explain how the current system of policing of drug users is inequitable in the sense that people from poorer communities are monitored, sentenced and punished more often and more severely than others are. They also point to how students in schools are educated very poorly about drugs, where among other things, cannabis is still said to be a good ol’ fashioned gateway drug.

Vitally, People Before Profit discuss the need to closely monitor and regulate the influence and power of large corporations from the pharmaceutical, alcohol and cigarette industries, so that they won’t unfairly dominate future legalised drugs industries, or obscure any concerning information which may arise regarding effects on health.

Weed of Wonder | Review

Weed of Wonder is a stylish coffee table book released earlier this year by The Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum of Amsterdam and Barcelona. It was mostly written by Jules Marshall (Ken Tarant wrote chapter 13), with photography by Floris Leeuwenberg and input from Ben Dronkers, the museum founder, and Gerbrand Korevaar, the museum curator, who served as the book’s Editor-in-Chief.

‘Why use up the forests, which were centuries in the making, and the mines, which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?’Henry Ford

The book kicks off with a foreword from Ben Dronkers, where he states that the role of his museum (which houses over 9,000 artifacts) is to safeguard the history of cannabis, and to be ‘a source of information, inspiration and wonder for generations to come.’ He summarises some of the changes that have come about since he opened the Amsterdam site in 1987, and how attitudes and knowledge about the plant have changed with the ebb and flow of time. One fascinating and likely surprising example of this is credited as being renowned activist Jack Herer‘s archival discovery; a 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, in which industrial hemp is touted to be the next big thing in America, beneath the headline: ‘New Billion Dollar Crop’. The second opening passage in Weed of Wonder comes courtesy of former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Dries Van Agt, who says: ‘The demonstrable danger [of cannabis] to society is much smaller than those of alcohol and tobacco, which cause much more human suffering.‘ He proudly recalls the 1976 amendment to The Netherlands’ Opium Act, causing their revised approach to cannabis sales to become internationally known as ‘the Dutch toleration policy’.

The book’s introduction laments the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘just as it seemed cannabis would be an equally useful crop in the era of internal combustion and petrochemicals, it was plunged quite deliberately into a veritable dark age.’ One remarkable discovery (among others) by Professor Raphael Michoulam and his team in Israel is highlighted by the book. Naturally occurring cannabinoids, and receptors for them, are produced inside the brains and bodies of all multicellular animals. Such receptors ‘boost or dampen processes that operate in nearly every part of the body’, regulating pain relief among other crucial functions. This is truly remarkable when you consider that cannabis itself is the only plant which produces cannabinoids. Because of this, cannabis is thought to be at least as old as the last common ancestor of all vertebrates and invertebrates, dating back over 500 million years ago. Aside from helping our bodies maintain homeostasis, the plant has countless industrial uses. Towards the end of the book, author Jules Marshall reminds us that hemp is ‘capable of producing paper, textiles, building materials, food, medicine, paint, detergent, varnish, oil, ink, plastics, and fuel‘.

Formal discoveries and classifications of the Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis plant species are covered, alongside some general history and information in chapter one. The next chapter covers the early history of cannabis around the world, starting around 12,000 years ago with the first traces of domestication in what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia. This fascinating historical tour takes in Japan, Central Asia, India, Egypt, China, Greece and the Roman Empire. The Indian Sanskrit poem, Atharva Veda, lists cannabis as one of five sacred plants. A Hindu work called the Raja Valabba claims that the gods provided cannabis for the human race to ‘attain delight, lose all fear and have their sexual desires excited‘. China’s name for itself was once ‘the land of mulberry and hemp’. Cannabis and silk (produced in part by feeding silkworms mulberries) were both commonly traded on the famous Silk Road routes, stretching from China to the Mediterranean.

Exodus 30 of The Bible describes an anointing or sanctifying oil for people such as kings and priests, which includes the ingredient q’neh bosm. It’s believed this is probably derived from the word ‘cannabis’. The oil Jesus used to heal sick people is thought to have been based on the same mixture. Hashish was popular in the medieval Arab world, where the prophet Mohammed did not ban its use, despite alcohol being strictly forbidden. Arab Doctors of the time used cannabis (or kannab) as a medicine. Hemp fibre was vital for ship construction during The Age of Sail. Johannes Gutenberg‘s revolutionary printing press used hemp-based paper and ink. [If I keep listing early historical tidbits, you’ll start wondering whether this is a proper book review or an endless list of facts, so I’ll move on!]

Suffice it to say, the Western world took much longer to really begin understanding and embracing cannabis, which gained popularity thanks to the likes of visionary Limerick man, Doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. By the late 1800s, Western cities such as New York, Paris and London, began to see the plant as exotic, stylish, intellectual and enlightening. The book goes on to detail connections being formed in the imaginations of influential racist Americans in the early 1900s, who started to associate weed with brown and black people from various ethnic groups. It was therefore to be feared and shunned, according to authority figures of that period. The strong link between cannabis and cultural movements like jazz music, beatnik ‘brotherhoods’ and ‘flower children’ hippies is described in fascinating detail. Sadly, by chapter seven of the book, we’re moving on to growing global prohibition efforts. ‘The Forbidden Plant’ mentions the horrendous injustice of sentencing African-American Roger Davis to 40 years in prison for the possession and sale of eight ounces of cannabis, in 1974. It’s accompanied by a haunting High Times magazine cover of Davis peering at the camera through prison bars.

‘I have been involved with cannabis all my life, and the plant keeps surprising me. People deserve to be educated. There are so many misconceptions, misleading and inaccurate stories, as well as blatant lies, spread by the media. Terrible propaganda against a plant.’ – Ben Dronkers

Perhaps most importantly for modern historians and drug reform activists, this chapter covers all of the key conventions, treaties and laws which made a life with cannabis, including medicinal use and the growing of hemp, increasingly stigmatised and forbidden. The medicinal value cannabis was understood to have was suddenly struck off the international record by a UN ruling in 1951. Generally, such monumental decisions made by politicians of the era were made out of an irrational sense of racist paranoia and fear, based upon no real evidence. It is also thought that they were made with the vested interests of certain industries that competed with cannabis in mind. Figures like Harry J. Anslinger are highlighted as key prohibitionist influencers. Some of their attitudes appear to have remained ingrained in the minds of certain people to this day, including Irish Minister and human barricade to progressive drug reform, Frank Feighan. The book guides us through different areas of pop culture that cannabis left its mark on over the years, before examining Dutch tolerance and its policy changes over the decades in finer detail.

We’re presented with some of Rotterdam and Amsterdam’s finest coffeeshops. Prominent coffeeshop pioneers are profiled; Henk de Vries, the late Kees Hoekert, and ‘The Hash Queen‘, Mila Jansen. Following this, we delve more into cannabis as a part of modern Western healthcare, where at its peak it had ‘at least 2,000 products from over 280 manufacturers’. This would decline immensely in the twentieth century, with the rise of synthetic drug production and less corporate interest in variable plant-derived medications. Chapter 13, by Ken Tarant, is a biography of Ben Dronkers and his life’s work, as seen through three branches; the museum, Sensi Seed Bank, and hemp cultivation and processing company, Hempflax. It also profiles Ben’s family and his most notable museum collaborators who contributed over the years, and in many cases, still do.

‘The Sensi Seed Bank is the most comprehensive cannabis genetics bank in the world… It is a little like preserving the rainforest because we know there are potential medicines there which must not be destroyed.’

– the late Dr. Lester Grinspoon, of Harvard Medical School

Overall, including introductions and credits, Weed of Wonder amounts to 288 pages. It’s packed with information across areas too numerous to cover in this review. It is a high-quality labour of love, formatted in an approachable way that invites readers to dip in and out of reading. It’s full of gorgeous, eye-catching photography and illustrations, and can be bought in either a green or purple hardback cover, with metallic silver or gold title lettering, respectively. It’s unlikely to alienate those with a more casual interest in things, as it avoids overly lengthy or complicated passages. Although ordering the book to Ireland raises its price from €34.50 to a steep €48.75 with mandatory tracked shipping, it is a pleasure from cover to cover and can be thought of as an eye-catching high end investment. Personally, I consider this book a treasure, as well as a testament to the continued passions of Ben Dronkers, his friends and family, and cannabis advocates everywhere by extension.

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

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!

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.

Laura | 15.06.2021

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

Twitter / Instagram: @ucancallmelola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you first become interested in cannabis?

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

Do you know a lot of people who use cannabis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://youtu.be/gXtJqwSLkiQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

4 More about this treaty can be read here –

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

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

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

6 See the following Agriland article for more on this –

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

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

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

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

Dr. Órfhlaith Campbell | Belfast, Northern Ireland | 12.11.2020

Doctor Órfhlaith Campbell is a Belfast-based historian, wellbeing practitioner and drug reform activist with a PhD on the The Irish Temperance League of 1858-1914, which campaigned during a time of major political upheaval across the island. She has a background in community work, having worked in a range of positions in Vancouver, Canada, supporting adults with mental health and substance use issues. Since returning home in January 2020, Órfhlaith has worked with young people in inner city Belfast who are struggling with the same issues. / Twitter: @DrOrfh

When did you first take an interest in weed and in drug reform? Well, those are two very different questions. Órfhlaith laughs I first took interest in weed at 15 and smoked it on and off until I went to Canada. And then obviously it was very different over there. But my interest in drug reform would’ve been when I started doing my PhD and I started looking at the prohibition of alcohol. And alcohol is a drug. But, I probably at the time didn’t even realise the significance of what I was studying and it wasn’t until I went to Canada and lived there, through the debates on prohibition and the legalisation of cannabis at the time when I really started to understand the significance of what I had studied and how that then played into contemporary conversations on drug reform. And it wasn’t just that I had studied the fact that there were some people in Ireland back in the 1800s that decided we should all not drink here. So yeah, that’s when I would’ve got involved.

How has your community work over the years informed your opinions on drug and rehabilitation policies across the British Isles? Have your experiences changed your views on drugs and the people who use them? So for me, the question is probably “What drugs does that person use?” I think we have to change our definition of drugs. We have to stop looking at it from that war on drugs-focused lens, where alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals are good, and cannabis, cocaine, heroin are bad. They’re all drugs, and they all do a range of things and can be used for a range of different reasons. So, when you ask that question then, “What drugs does that person use?”, then your next question always has to be “Why?” and then once you’ve asked “Why?”, then you can start to understand and see the impact that the system has had on people for centuries now, at this point. For me, I obviously enjoy academic stuff, but if I don’t understand what’s happening on the ground or am not listening to a more person-centered approach, I have to put the two together. So in my everyday work you can actually see the pain that some people are living in and how that’s driving substance use. And you can see on a daily basis that substance use issues is a symptom of a much deeper cause.

Considering your historical research on Irish temperance, how do you feel about Ireland’s relationship with alcohol today? Do you think it’s changed much overall since that time? I think the thing about the temperance movement is they weren’t all wrong, although we’ve got to a place where the prohibition movement is now.. the more extreme elements of that took over. When temperance and prohibition started coming about in the mid 1800s, something needed to be done about alcohol. And I would say that something probably does need to be done about it again. Temperance reformers probably weren’t wrong that the drink business would step in and start using marketing campaigns. And that is taking advantage of what I think is cultural experience here where we enjoy the craic, we enjoy going wild. 

But because we’re told this substance is okay and this is the only one we can use, it’s overused. Alcohol and drugs are taken as two separate things. So, if you took the statistics for the medical and mental health issues that come from alcohol and put them in the drug one, you would see that alcohol is the most dangerous drug. But yet because the American government needed tax after the Great Depression and legalised it, that put the nail in the coffin for alcohol prohibition. Harry Anslinger, who was the head of The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had been the head of the Department of Prohibition directly before that, so you know… He was experienced in that area! Absolutely. He doesn’t even change a thing, he was literally just like: “Right okay, so we were doing all that with alcohol. We’ll just scrape alcohol out and then we’ll put cannabis in here for now and we’ll just add all these other drugs as we go”.

1Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was a Limerick-born physician who is said to have introduced the therapeutic use of cannabis to Western medicine and popularised it in England in the 1830s and ‘40s. Are there any other noteworthy historical advocates of cannabis from Ireland and the UK who you’ve become aware of? I liked that question, it did make me think of a couple. So, obviously there’s Doctor George Sigerson. I never know if I’m saying his name right. Sigerson – that’s an interesting name for sure! He was a Doctor, a poet, a playwright, a political activist. In 1866, he writes a pamphlet called 2Cannabiculture in Ireland; its Profit & Possibility. A cannabis activist today could take this and reprint it, and he was literally screaming it back in 1866! It mentioned the benefits of it for agriculture and what hemp could do here, it’s crazy… That’s incredible. So he was a fantastic activist.

(W.B) 3Yeats as well, has written of his experiences with the plant. He was said to have been introduced to it in France in 1890. But my favourite one was, not long after O’Shaughnessy started talking about the medical benefits of cannabis, I came across an 1845 Doctor. I think it might have been in The Belfast Newsletter. And there’s this young woman he’s helping and she’s suffering from menstrual cramps. Yeah. And he prescribes some THC drugs to her, but he over-prescribes it. Clearly he gives her too much and she has a whitey. Richard laughs And when you’re having a whitey, you know what’s happening. Everybody around her was like: “Oh my God, is she possessed? She’s convulsing!” And reading it back now, you’re like: “Oh my God, she’s just whitey-ing! I get what’s happening!” If that was in 1845 and they were even thinking of “How could this be used for women, for their monthly cycle?”, that was so pioneering back then! So when you asked that question, he came into my head straight away. ‘Cause we’re only starting to have those conversations now. With all the medical benefits, including women’s health, he’s probably my favourite. That’s amazing.

Have you discovered any historical information about drug use and prohibition in Ireland and the UK that has especially stood out to you? Yeah. What really stood out to me during my PhD was… I think when you think of temperance and the anti-drink movement in Ireland, you think of the pioneers and taking your pledge at confirmation and all that sort of thing. Yeah. But really, it was a whole range of experiences on this island that really shaped the temperance and prohibition movements across the British Isles. So we’re literally pioneers in what we came to prohibition movement now although that’s not what they intended at the time because the extreme elements won out. And everyday it continues to shock me that there are examples of best practice that we are choosing to ignore. 

The ITL, which was The Irish Temperance League, was the organisation I studied in my PhD. They still work in Belfast today. Yeah. The organisation still functions. And part of that is because they have a great board of activists that are still passionate about helping people in recovery. But they had their legislative prohibition section and they had this other section that was called moral suasion. And that was to persuade people to give up drink. It’s an odd little term, but that department of the movement then had two sections to it. One was their business section and they had fancy soirées and they were trying to bring in all the money from the middle and upper classes. But they have an outreach section as well. It’s basically this section that’s focusing on their reasons for demand. So it focuses on prevention, it focuses on recovery and it focuses on alternative recreation. That’s where we get cafés from.

So you didn’t just have to go to a pub where there was alcohol being served. You could go to the café and just have a coffee with your friends. It’s also where Thomas Cook comes from! He used to send people away on drink-free holidays so you could have a great time with your family and you didn’t have to go to the pub or whatever… Oh, I didn’t know that. Yeah, isn’t that crazy? Yeah. Wasn’t it this year that that company went bust? Mm-hmm. So when things like that happen, my little temperance brain’s going: “Nobody else understands… Remember where we came from!” Richard laughs That’s why he was set up, so… when you think of it that way, it was about giving the working class alternative recreations. So that was perfect, but now we just have this system where it says, “Focus on taking away supply”. We don’t even concern ourselves with the reasons for demand anymore, we’ve completely cut that out of the equation. And that’s the problem, ‘cause you’re not listening. When American prohibition failed in 1929, that’s the end of the movement. It’s a century old at that stage. So we have this whole century’s worth of things there that worked and things there that didn’t work and things there that we shouldn’t do. So since this is a working class issue, I think we need to reclaim our right to own our recreational and medical freedoms and have a safe and clean supply of drugs that there is a demand for and that people want to have.

It’s here. Why are we making a black market and then punishing people for things that have been sold? 4Theresa May’s husband has massive shares in GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK. It blows my mind! So you’re selling weed into Cali and then it’s coming back here and then you’re arresting people and putting them in prison for maybe fourteen years… And the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of cannabis as well, apparently. Yeah! The hypocrisy is absolutely mind-blowing. When you understand the roots of where this came from and you see that those extreme elements didn’t have to win out, there were other alternatives to what we have now ended up with, you can’t accept the system. Sorry, that was a bit of a rant! No it was brilliant though, I love rants. Keep going with those. Órfhlaith laughs

How strong is cannabis and drug reform activism in Northern Ireland at the moment, in your opinion? It’s pretty good at the minute, there’s a lot of great work being done up here. The 5Belfast Cannabis Group, the 6NI Canna Guy, 7Charlotte Caldwell. There’s the Save the Future campaign that’s been happening recently, they’ve helped some people out. They’re doing fantastic stuff. It’s really interesting I think, because I think you can track the conversation happening here both from a community level, like the Belfast Cannabis Group, who are building a community, to more family conversations, right up to more political-level conversations. So, I know we have an all-Party committee that’s been established recently to look at all substance use issues here which is positive.

I think the conversation’s going to take a long time, it’s going to be baby steps, and no conversation is going to be more important than the other. Even you, sitting in your living room, talking with your parents about this stuff, because… I think the generation above us are terrified. It goes against absolutely everything that they taught us. And we’re kind of like, “No, you’re wrong”. And sometimes I wonder if we’re arguing back with them and it’s almost like, “Oh, you’ve done this bad thing”, when they were almost doing it out of love. They were trying to keep us safe. So, these are hard conversations to have. Coming back to the North was a little bit of a culture shock for me ‘cause I lived in Vancouver. So, obviously the drug reform and drug culture over there is so progressive and lightyears ahead of here. So it did take me a little bit of time to settle in. I’m home a year now and as this year has gone on the cannabis movement and the whole drug reform movement up here in the North is just growing daily. So it’s absolutely fantastic. That’s fantastic to hear.

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK for those with an “exceptional clinical need” in 2018, largely due to the media exposure of two severely epileptic children who used it – Billy Caldwell and 9Alfie Dingley. Peter Carroll of the 10End Our Pain campaign recently reported that at least twenty families have had to pay for costly private medical cannabis prescriptions for their children, after the NHS [National Health Executive]  repeatedly refused to fund it for them. Do you think that policymakers are listening to and engaging with End Our Pain and other advocacy groups across the UK and Northern Ireland? I think that they think they are. I think they’re like: “Okay yeah, we know there’s these potential medical problems that cannabis might help with. But we still think that we’re right and our fears are justified and all the research that cannabis is bad is still right. So we’re going to find this way of that one loophole that’ll make it okay for you”. But they’re not actually listening to the whole body of research that’s out there, that they’re claiming isn’t out there.

And that’s what probably does frustrate me the most about the drug conversation here and actually it did start to happen a little over in Vancouver as well. The argument that the research doesn’t exist… No it does, you’re just choosing to ignore it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Or we don’t have to say: “We’ll need to do this research” or “We’ll need to see if that will work”, when you’re just turning a blind eye to the thing over there that’s screaming at you, like Portugal, saying: “This works, this works!”

Portugal is the biggest one of all for me, in terms of what could be done. Absolutely. I think they’re refusing to listen. And that really, really stood out for me when I went to a seminar in Vancouver and it was 11Dr. Evan Lewis. And he was from the Toronto Centre for Neurology, I think. He’s a well-established Doctor in Canada and he was giving all the research that literally was the same, word-for-word, that Billy (Caldwell) needed. And I remember I was like, “How possibly can I get them in connection with each other. Billy’s mom at the time was on This Morning saying: “The Doctors are saying this research doesn’t exist, it would take years for them to do it, it’s too dangerous”. And then I had this professional standing there saying, “No, no. I’ve years worth of research. Here’s this great number of kids I’ve helped.” And it was almost like I was being gaslit, because I was thinking, “They’re choosing to ignore it.”

It’s in reach, but it’s just not being looked at. Yeah, I think they think they’re listening, but it’s that moral fear of intoxication. They don’t want to allow too much medical use, because then they think that’s normalising recreational use and people are still terrified of recreational use. Because again, we don’t have a true understanding of what drugs are, what substances are, why we use them for recreation. And that was one of the main problems with the legalisation process in Canada, they rushed it through, for a number of reasons. They didn’t deal with those underlying fears that were driving it and it set up more avenues for it to be criminalised. And the big business could then step in and take over and that money wasn’t being filtered back into the communities. 

Sorry, did you say they opened up more avenues to be criminalised after they legalised it? I think you can still get a conviction if you’re caught in possession within so many metres of a school. And some other things too. So it wasn’t just accepted on the same terms as alcohol, with the understanding that we need to look at our whole relationship with all substances. It wasn’t like: “Cannabis is legal, away we go!” It was: “Here’s some regulations”, there’s still a stigma towards it. “We’re gonna legalise it without normalising it”, I think was their entire slogan. “We’re gonna legalise it so we can make the most of this market that’s clearly here, but we really don’t want anyone else smoking.” So 12Jodie Emery and 13Dana Larson and a lot of the biggest cannabis activists in Vancouver would call this Prohibition 2.0. I would say at this stage we’re probably on Prohibition 4.0.

Until your return home earlier this year you worked in Vancouver for a few years, where cannabis has been fully legal since October 2018. How can Ireland’s governments on both sides of the border learn from Canada’s cannabis policies, and what should they avoid doing? The cannabis legalisation in Canada should almost be taken at this stage as a “What not to do”. Because big business stepped in way too quickly, It was shocking. It was businessmen who saw an opportunity and didn’t have a notion what they were talking about, who were trying to make money. And because there were still all of these avenues for criminalisation and stigmas and legalising without normalising, the cannabis community was still feeling the effects of that. We need to make sure that it’s focused on social justice, because it will be legalised at some point. 

We’re gonna enter a conversation, we need the tax money. So we need to make sure we fight and make them make that money go back into social justice, back into the communities who are most affected by the war on drugs. The working classes, who were criminalised and had criminal records for possession of a joint, who were stigmatised to the point where they had paranoia. We need to recognise the harms that drug prohibition has caused as well as making room to minimise the harms that come from drugs. We can’t let big business step in and take that money for profit. When legalisation comes in, it can’t be a capitalist system, it has to be for social justice.

A similar situation arose over in California with Proposition 64, when they legalised cannabis. From what I’ve been told, a lot of big business interests swooped in and a lot of people who would’ve made a living off of it for years, who would’ve cultivated it and known a lot about it… They didn’t have that same access to the new legal market. Absolutely. When I moved out there (Canada) in 2016, cannabis wasn’t legal but it was medicinally and socially acceptable. So you had these little stores everywhere that had communities built up around them. You could interact with the plants in them, you could go in and smell them. You knew who your budtender was. It was a one-on-one interactive experience. And then because they didn’t deal with that fear and because they wanted it for votes and they saw this real business opportunity, it didn’t work out the way they needed it to.

Do you see the Dublin and Stormont governments taking meaningful steps towards cannabis reform in the short term future, given the tidal wave of support for legalisation that’s evident across the United States and the near-majority support for legalising weed in the recent New Zealand referendum? I think it’s gonna be a lot of conversations here for a long time. I think particularly in the North, and it links in to our post-conflict status, people are absolutely terrified of this conversation. So I think understanding hurdles and a willingness to overcome hurdles and even to start this conversation has to be looked at. Those are the short term steps that we’re going to take. But in the North here, drug legislation isn’t a devolved issue, so it comes from Westminster. I think the global culture of cannabis at the minute is going to force that tidal wave of making Westminster change it. They can’t hold out to that hypocrisy any more. So I do think it’s gonna come in that way. I do think that it’ll be within the next 5-10 years. I think It’ll be difficult and it’ll be baby steps and there’ll be a lot of arguments, but I do think the more global context of cannabis at the minute and places like Portugal and all the drug reforms that just got through with the (U.S) election…

I think that that’s gonna force it, maybe more than we are politically and socially ready for. But I think that makes it more important for activists like us to just keep having these conversations. Even if people think we’re going on about it a wee bit too much. It impacts so many parts of people’s life. Especially now, as mental health issues do increase and lockdown is happening. If cannabis was legalised in the morning, the issues of the lockdown would just go. We’d be happy enough to all stay in our houses and watch Netflix!  And up here in Belfast when the students were up at uni here, we suffered with some issues in The Holylands. That’s the area in Belfast where all the students live. It’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled stuff, it’s over-consumption.

So if you legalised cannabis over there, the worst they’re gonna get is a little bit of the munchies! The benefit it would have for agriculture here, if people were growing hemp and cannabis. And medicinally, with a range of stuff! And considering all of the trauma that remains in Northern Ireland since 14The Troubles.. 100%. We have very high levels of substance use and of suicide up here and extremely high levels of PTSD. There’s evidence to show that cannabis is a great treatment for PTSD and trauma. I think that plays into the bigger conversation of how we heal up here in the North, from our conflict. Our generation is the 15Ceasefire Baby generation. We’ve all experienced pain and we all want to understand more, but maybe let’s change that conversation to being about how we heal and allowing more time for downtime and recreation and creativity and seeing what can come from that. 

Can we find a more creative way out of that? We all use substances, we all use drugs. Let’s offer a few alternatives and see what happens. Surely drug reform is something that all communities can get together on. 100%, and that is one of the things the cannabis community up here is absolutely fantastic at. It’s one thing that we all want to unite on. We can still have our differences and different points of view, but we want to focus on our healing now. That’s a really big part of the message of the cannabis community in the North.

We really appreciate you devoting some time to this Órfhlaith, thank you so much. Have a nice evening! You too, all the best. Thanks a million!

References:

1 The Dublin Hemp Museum’s article on Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy:

https://medium.com/@dubhempmuseum/sir-william-brooke-oshaughnessy-medical-cannabis-pioneer-c94798fd7722 

2 Doctor George Sigerson’s Cannabiculture in Ireland; its Profit & Possibility, via Google Books:

https://books.google.ie/books?id=jBjDmgEACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

3 Here’s an article on W.B Yeats and cannabis by The Dublin Hemp Museum:

https://medium.com/@dubhempmuseum/william-butler-yeats-and-cannabis-fa8335789c37 

4 (Former UK Prime Minister) Theresa May’s husband, Philip May, has the largest amount of shares in

GW Pharmaceuticals, as detailed here by Researching Reform:

https://researchingreform.net/2019/09/27/company-majority-owned-by-former-pm-gets-uk-licence-for-cannabis-medication/ 

5 More information about Belfast Cannabis Group can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/belfastcannagroup/

6 NI Canna Guy interview in Weed World Magazine:

https://www.weedworldmagazine.org/2019/08/02/a-friend-in-need-alan-robinson-aka-ni-canna-guy-by-psy23/ 

7 The Story of Billy’s Medicine, by Charlotte Caldwell on Volteface: https://www.volteface.me/14474-2/   

8 Here’s an article about Alfie Dingley and others in the UK who urgently require government action:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/uk-medical-cannabis-epilepsy-children-nhs-deadlock-a9578971.html 

9 More information about the End Our Pain organisation: https://endourpain.org/ 

10 A profile of Dr. Evan Lewis: https://neurologycentretoronto.com/team/dr-evan-cole-lewis/ 

11 Jodie Emery’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jodie_Emery  

12 Dana Larson’s official website: http://danalarsen.com/ 

13 The outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as outlined by The Irish Times:

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/how-the-troubles-began-a-timeline-1.3987076 

14 An obituary for Lyra McKee, who wrote about what she dubbed the Ceasefire Babies generation:

https://bit.ly/3iKwJb8