The burning issue: Should cannabis be legalised?

Taken from Irish Examiner


Sending people through the criminal justice system for simple possession is a complete waste of resources for the State and the individual, says Gino Kenny, TD

Earlier this week, the Irish College of Psychiatrists issued a stark warning that “cannabis represents the gravest threat to the mental health of young people today”.

The college further noted that there were suggestions that the drug was considered “harmless” and that the number of hospital admissions of young people with a cannabis-related diagnosis increased by 300% between 2005 and 2017.

There is no doubt that the potency levels of cannabis are different from what they were 10 years ago.

I have not met anyone who refers to cannabis as being completely harmless, but there could be a misconception held by some younger people who use it frequently that there are no short- or long-term effects caused by its consistent use.

The findings in the report are, of course, concerning to those of us that advocate ending prohibition of cannabis, but we cannot view these findings or observations in isolation when discussing the central argument of the lack of cannabis regulation.

I would like to set out the case that the consequences of the prohibition of cannabis are contributing to the lack of regulation and oversight of those who choose to use cannabis.

Without trivialising the findings from the Irish College of Psychiatrists, there are many other threats to the mental health and wellbeing of young people, particularly during this public health emergency.

Poverty, inequality, deprivation, a lack of public services, and mental health capacity all must surely pose as great a risk?

Like with alcohol, some young people are using cannabis as a form of escapism to block out the stress and anxieties they may be experiencing, particularly during the pandemic. The overuse of cannabis can sometimes exacerbate theses emotions, leading to certain difficulties in dependency for a certain age cohort.

Cannabis is a controlled drug and illegal to possess and consume. This means that criminal sanction is the only deterrent for its use, sale, and cultivation.

Thousands of people in the State have criminal convictions for the simple possession of cannabis for their own use.

Sending people through the criminal justice system for simple cannabis possession has been a complete waste of resources for both the State and the individual.

This may seem blatantly obvious, but cannabis will be used whether it is legal or not.

The demand for cannabis and use of cannabis in all age groups has never been as great.

This is borne out by the constant weekly seizures of cannabis in the past 12 months.

Even looking at the yearly cannabis seizures by the authorities over the past seven years, this has incrementally increased.

A vacuum exists for the demand and supply of cannabis and that vacuum is largely filled by the black market.

Without any regulation of the quality of the cannabis produced, there then exists an uncontrolled and deregulated system that is very profitable and, in essence, is controlled by criminal gangs.

The by-product of this can then be contamination with pesticides and other alternates that the buyer is not aware of when cannabis is been consumed.

Even in terms of potency, there is no labelling of street cannabis for levels of CBD and THC, the two main components of cannabis.

In other jurisdictions around the world, a regulated system of cannabis consumption and cultivation, replacing the system of the black market, has largely been successful.

In terms of taxation from the proceeds of the sale of cannabis, this has been ringfenced and contributes towards projects of education and harm reduction.

All indications show that public opinion as well as governmental bodies across the world are changing their stance on the prohibition of cannabis.

The Mexican government recently announced that it would legalise cannabis for recreational use.

This is a country that has endured years of a relentless war on the illicit narcotics industry — a war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

I am not suggesting that this grotesque violence will suddenly recede because of legalisation, but the amount of resources that countries commit to stopping the cultivation, supply, and consumption of cannabis is unsustainable.

The legacy around “the war on drugs” — particularly cannabis or its Hispanic term, marijuana — is a legacy of racism, politicisation, and marginalisation.

The ongoing discussion regarding drug decriminalisation for personal use has been dragged out for years and successive governments in Ireland have failed to address a policy that was implemented in Portugal 20 years ago.

Portugal went from being one of the highest incidences of drug-related deaths to one of the lowest in Europe.

Decriminalisation is far from perfect, but the evidence clearly shows that it saves lives and protects society from the terrible effects of drug addiction.

Later this year, People Before Profit will be introducing the Cannabis Regulation and Control Bill 2021. This will be the first time in eight years that legislation around ending the prohibition on cannabis will be before the Irish parliament.

At this juncture, it is difficult to gauge the political support. However, there will be an intense debate around the upcoming bill on whether to continue to keep criminalising people for cannabis use and directing them through the criminal justice system.

It was welcome that, in January last, An Garda Síochána announced that it would caution, rather than charge, people who are caught in possession of cannabis for personnel use.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 needs to be reformed to reflect changing attitudes and countenance possible societal changes in attitude to drug use in the future.

I would argue that there needs to be paradigm shift in the binary choice of keeping cannabis illegal as we have now or making it legal in the future.