Cloud of smoke: Divisive cannabis bill set to die?

By Andrew Barnes

As the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation bill was passed on the first day of December last year, news outlets and social media were jam-packed with comment and controversy. What does this bill mean? Who will benefit from it? When will it come into effect? The internet was ablaze with speculation as to what exactly surrounded the proposed legislation. A quick glance back at newspapers and news feeds from around that time and the months that followed and some things are obvious. People were excited as they thought ‘weed’ would be legalised. The Irish Times speculated that the “poorly constructed” bill would make cannabis legal for recreational use for all those over 16. There was a whole lot of disinformation around what the bill really meant.

All those who thought that they would be getting a slice of Amsterdam were wrong. The Irish Times was not quite on the button. It seemed obvious that these ‘reports’ were simply that, from just reading the bill; a bill that suggested the “regulation, labelling and production of cannabis products for medicinal use.” Almost a year later, confusion still surrounds the bill. A report carried out by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) last January and published by Minister for Health Simon Harris on February 10th added some clarity about what may be included in the legislation, but still people felt irked.

“From talking to people, the whole thing just seems kind of muddled” mused Keith Coughlan, who runs one of the country’s most informative websites on medicinal cannabis: “Social Media is good for getting the point across, with Vera Twomey for example getting her message across, but there’s also a lot ignorance on it too. There needs to be more information about it. It seems the confusion is being caused by what people want [the bill] to be and what it actually is. I think [the Government] are taking baby steps around it at the moment because they don’t want any loopholes in the bill like what happened with the head shops selling those synthetic drugs a few years ago.”

The “baby-steps” Keith speaks of are the HPRA’s recommendations, made last January and approved by Harris, of a “compassionate access scheme for cannabis-based treatment to be established”. The HPRA advised that cannabis should only be available for the treatment of patients with specified medical conditions, for those who have not responded to other treatments and where there is some evidence that cannabis may be effective. This would only allow those suffering from spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, those suffering from nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and people with treatment-resistant epilepsy to have access to medicinal cannabis.

“It doesn’t go far enough. Even if you look at Vera Twomey’s daughter, after all she’s been through she still needs another consultant to sign off on a medicine her child really needs,” explained Keith. “I think the stigma surrounding cannabis in the media and the disaster of the head shops a few years ago is making it much more difficult for the government to come in and actually implement a proper bill that will help a wide range of people suffering from illness. But this isn’t smoking weed we’re talking about, it’s CBD oil. It has no THC (the drug that induces the ‘high’ in cannabis), we’re not talking about five year olds smoking joints, we’re talking about controlled cannabinoid [the element in the cannabis that researchers have found beneficial] use. There shouldn’t be a problem.”

Medicinal Cannabis image
Confusion remains around the legalization of medicinal cannabis

Keith set up the website in 2015 to inform and allow a discussion to take place about the use of medicinal cannabis products, a discussion that has become more progressive in recent years. “It was really set up to allow people to discuss what was working for them and what wasn’t. Where to get the CBD Oil and what was the best one to use for different conditions. Now there’s a lot more talk about it and it seems the more talk the more confusion surrounding it. We try to use the website to give clear and accurate information.”

January’s 83 page report published by the HPRA only exemplified the gap between public and media perception and the truth of the matter. This time in scientific terms. The ‘findings’ section said: There​ appears to be a significant gap between the public perception of effectiveness and safety and the regulatory requirement for scientific data which is mandatory to determine the role of cannabis as a medicine … the best outcome for patients is the development of authorised cannabis based medicines where the safety, efficacy and quality can be assured.”

This is something that has been suggested by Dr Michael Harty, Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Health. Dr Harty has opposed the bill – which passed without amendment, since its first utterance in the Dáil. His interpretation of the bill was in line with the viewpoint of the Irish Times and much of the public on the matter.  He made the argument to his colleagues that “it is designed to legalise recreational drug use in the guise of legalising it for medicinal use… [it] is so flawed that it does not deserve a second reading”.

Dr Harty, an independent TD representing County Clare believes in cannabis for medicinal use but warns that there are dangers surrounding the substance too. “There are huge problems around smoking cannabis. As the HPRA report has shown there is not a whole lot of concrete evidence surrounding cannabis consumption. Studies so far have not been conclusive on the effects of the drug, particularly [the] use of THC and its side-effects. There have been a number of links found between cannabis use, particularly in younger people, and schizophrenia and other mental health problems.  Medicinal products, medical extracts from cannabis, that is a different issue. I have a particular interest in making medicinal cannabis products available for patients. That should be pursued.”

This was another issue that the Joint Health Committee found in their final report in July, which has indefinitely shelved the bill. The report is strongly critical of the bill on multiple grounds. The report criticises the provision around removing cannabis from the Misuse of Drugs Act, saying that this could have “unintended policy consequences” like decriminalising cannabis in non-medicinal circumstances. It also says access to cannabis would be too loose under the bill, meaning that it could be potentially harmful for patients and would take steps towards decriminalising marijuana for recreational use.

This is something that Keith echoes too. “While the recommendations aren’t conclusive enough for my liking I do agree with some of the ways that the [HPRA and Joint Healthcare Committees] are approaching the matter. People seem to think that there is no consequence to taking cannabis. It is a drug at the end of the day and there is probably too much positive media coverage. It does have harmful effects and people, particularly young people who are seeing all of the talk of weed being a medicine, need to know about the dangers that come with it. Saying that, who are they to judge if it benefits someone with a particular illness or not? If someone is taking CBD oil for a particular illness and finds that it is helping them recover, who are we to tell them it’s not?”

And so it seems that the confusion surrounding the matter lies within the bill itself, while the anger, by those like Vera Twomey and Keith, has been caused by the restrictive HPRA recommendations and the findings of the Joint Health Committee.

The man at the centre of all of this is TD Gino Kenny, who understands the confusion and anger, but said: “Overall that the bill was extremely positive, we weren’t going out trying to legalise cannabis for over 16s, that clearly wasn’t the intention … the intention of the bill was to make cannabis available for medicinal purposes for all those who need it.”

Mr Kenny said that the spin on the bill by some, that the bill was a ‘trojan horse’ to make ways for recreational cannabis use, was down to “hidden agendas”. He said: “I think certain people have very biased opinions on medicinal cannabis. They think that the introduction of medicinal cannabis was only a Trojan horse to get recreational cannabis through the back door, but that’s completely false…. if [I] wanted to put a bill forth for recreational use I’d put a bill forward for recreational use, I wouldn’t hide it … that kind of writing was misleading. [Michael Harty] shouldn’t be giving his own personal views on the subject, especially as chairman of the Health Committee, I think he’s biased towards a bill that has gotten cross party support.”

Mr Kenny also explained how he wasn’t pleased with the HPRA’s recommendations that medicinal cannabis would be available for use for what he believes is such a small minority of sufferers, nor did he agree with the Joint Healthcare Committee’s reports. “They are flawed, I’ve read them and it’s easy to see that it’s fundamentally flawed. The HRPA’s is quite a sizeable report, and if you read it, it’s quite prejudiced against medicinal cannabis, and it goes on to say that the only medicine that they would recommend is pharmaceutical grade cannabis, and if that’s what the end-game is for the cannabis access programme – where it only suits pharmaceutical grades, well that’s not going far enough, that’s not progress. I’m being objective when I say that, I’m taking my political hat off; that’s not progress. That’s going backwards. It’s nothing new than what we have already, they’re just fast-tracking certain pharmaceutical branded medicines to treat certain illnesses.”

The next stage for the bill is for it to be passed to the Business Committee of the Dáil. The HRPA report and the Joint Health Committee’s report will be considered now by the members of the Business Committee (which decides matters relating to business and the agenda within the Dáil). Committee members will then decide either to accept the report or reject the findings. Kenny, along with fellow TD and advocate for the bill Richard Boyd Barrett, have promised to argue their case to the Business Committee and condemn the Joint Health Care Committee Report.

This is unprecedented territory for a bill proposal and will lead to two possible outcomes. The Business Committee will let the bill go forward or it will accept the Joint Healthcare Committee’s report and a motion will come back to the Dáil in which they can effectively vote to squash the bill.

No time frame has yet been given and the bill that began with confusion and hysteria looks fit to go on in the same vein.

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