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: cannabisireland.com. “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.

Tensions running high in the campaign for medical cannabis

As Vera Twomey’s highly publicised fight for medical cannabis continues, Hannah Lemass explains the differences between cannabis medications

Video: Should Cannabis be legalised or decriminalised in Ireland?

More and more countries have followed the lead of places like Amsterdam in decriminalising Cannabis in recent years. Is it time for Ireland to take another look at the issue? 

Everyone has an opinion on cannabis. Is it harmless fun or an addictive drug? Should it still be a criminal offence to possess it?

People are extremely divided on the effects of cannabis, some argue it is as damaging and addictive as any drug, indeed a lot of its effects on the brain are still being studied. Others argue that it is no more harmful to society than alcohol, and they also have a legitimate argument.

Some may feel a nation as conservative as Ireland would never follow this lead, however even 20 years ago who would have thought we would be on the cusp of a referendum to legalise same sex marriage?

Daniel, Donal and James of TheCity.ie took to the streets to ask people where they stood on the issue. As you may expect the results were divided.

By Donal Lucey, James Cox and Daniel Pim. 

Should the cannabis bill be puff puff passed?

Cannabis has many functional uses besides the most popular form, which is smoking. Image by: mafiosoch
Cannabis has many functional uses besides the most popular form, which is smoking. Image by: mafiosoch

American comedian and commentator, Will Rogers, once said of alcohol prohibition in the US that “prohibition is better than no alcohol at all”.

Although Rogers made his quip as a means of generating humour, he made a very valid point on the purpose of prohibition. It just doesn’t work.

Alcohol prohibition in the US did not prevent people from drinking alcohol, it just made the process more convoluted. It also made spirits – a form of alcohol that was very rarely acquired prior to prohibition – one of the highest forms of consumed alcohol due to its easy ability to hide and smuggle vast quantities.

Prior to the 20 US states and the District of Columbia passing laws allowing some degree of medical use of marijuana, and 14 states decriminalizing it to some degree, similar events surrounded the prohibition of cannabis.

It was still being used heavily throughout the US. And it was wasting precious police time, removing the man hours from being able to focus on more deadly drugs and/or crimes.

“I don’t smoke weed”, explained Kelley Duffy, a South Dublin mother, “but I know that if I wanted to get my hands on it it could in less than 30 minutes. An hour at max.”

Mark, a cannabis user, claims, “Sure it might as well be legal, because its not like people can’t get it as it is.”

He continued to explain. “People who want to smoke it are smoking it. Just because you can’t doesn’t mean it will stop people.

“Look at alcohol – people under 18 still get their hands on it and still drink. If people want to do it they will do it. Look at the massive increase in heroin use in Ireland. Surely tackling that is more important than some bits of plant.”

Forbes Magazine calculated that a 15% tax on the estimated 600,000 Coloradans cannabis smokers will generate over $130 million in revenue for the state of Colorado.

TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who was the man who has put the decriminalization bill to the Dail, estimated that cannabis could raise €300 million in revenue for the country.

Flanagan’s estimate may be on the optimistic side of the tax scale, but even a tax figure closer to the estimate given by Forbes would be of great benefit to a struggling Irish economy.However Fanagan was correct in saying that cannabis decriminalisation would “free up” garda resources.

“Even if it is not legal to smoke it, it should be legal for medicinal use”, stated Donna, whose mother suffers from severe arthritis.

“I use it for recreational use, but my mother takes a very small amount before bed and it helps her to no end.

“It relieves her pain, allows her to get to sleep. She doesn’t need to take three of her pills, that really don’t agree with her. It works wonders for her and I think that it is a disgrace that people who need it can’t.”

The bill will be either passed or rejected by the Dail on the 6th of November. The decision of the bill will have great consequences for hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens – many would argue positive, while some will still argue negative.

Should cannabis be legalised in Ireland?

Cannabis has many functional uses besides the most popular form, which is smoking. Image by: mafiosoch
Cannabis has many functional uses besides the most popular form, which is smoking. Image by: mafiosoch

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan – TD for Roscommon/South Leitrim –  has put forward a private members bill in the Dáil for the decriminalisation of cannabis – similar to the line that many U.S states have taken in recent months.

I took to the streets of Dublin to find out what the general public view on the bill was, and whether they wished to see the law on cannabis amended.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.