THERE HAS BEEN much talk in recent times about cannabis, namely plans to decriminalise or legalise it in certain jurisdictions.
A number of states in the US have decriminalised or legalised the drug and more are considering it.
In Colorado, for example, adults aged 21 or older can legally possess one ounce (28 grammes) of marijuana. Last year the state sold $996 million worth (about €876 million) of recreational and medical cannabis.
Under decriminalisation, the manufacture and sale of the drug remains unregulated but those caught using it face civil fines instead of criminal charges.
Legalisation lifts the laws banning the possession and personal use of cannabis. It also allows the government to regulate and tax sales.
In November, Drugs Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said he backed the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs when speaking at the London School of Economics.
“I am in favour of a decriminalisation model, but it must be one that suits the Irish context and be evidence based.
I believe that this kind of approach will only work if it is accompanied by timely treatment and harm reduction services, backed up by wrap-around supports which foster recovery – such as housing, health and social care.
When Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger raised the issue of legalisaing cannabis for medicinal use in the Dáil last month, Ó Ríordáin noted that the manufacture, sale, distribution and possession of cannabis is “currently unlawful except for the purposes of research” under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 2015 and subsequent regulations.
He said his department is “aware that cannabis for medicinal use has been legalised in some countries and that there have been several studies internationally on the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids for a number of medical issues”.
Ó Ríordáin noted that, under European and Irish legislation, before a medicine can be placed on the Irish market the manufacturer has to seek an authorisation from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) or, in the case of certain medicinal products, the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
A determination on an application for authorisation of a medicine is based on a rigorous scientific assessment of the application against legal and regulatory requirements.
The Labour minister added that in July 2014 regulations were amended to allow for certain cannabis-based medicinal products to be used in Ireland.
“Subsequently the HPRA granted a marketing authorisation for a cannabis-based medicinal product which is indicated for the relief of certain symptoms for people with multiple sclerosis.”
He said his department will continue to keep developments in relation to cannabis-based medical products “under review”.
Justice Committee report
Also in November, the Oireachtas Justice Committee strongly recommended that the possession of a small amount of illegal drugs be decriminalised – following months of research and public submissions.
The main findings of the committee’s report were:
- Drug possession could be dealt with by way of a civil response rather than the criminal justice system;
- Gardaí and health providers have discretion in choosing this option;
- Those found in possession would attend counselling and treatment meetings to help them stop using drugs;
- Research should be undertaken so that these measures are appropriate to Ireland.
In June last year members of the committee travelled to Lisbon to examine the Portuguese approach. The country decriminalised low-level possession of all drugs in 2001.
It is still an offence in Portugal to possess illegal drugs, but it is now treated as a civil or administrative matter in certain cases. This approach only applies when a person is found with a quantity of up to 10 days’ supply for personal use.
The Irish delegation was told that this approach resulted in a reduction in costs to the exchequer, in particular in costs associated with police time, criminal investigations, legal aid and court time. There was also a reduction in the number of HIV and Aids cases.
Based on their visit, the delegation noted that “proper coordination is necessary for this approach to be successful”.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, drug overdose deaths in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union. Among Portuguese adults, there are three drug overdose deaths for every one million citizens. The EU average is 17.3 per million.
The seven TDs who backed Flanagan’s motion were Richard Boyd Barrett, Joe Higgins, Thomas Pringle, Catherine Murphy, Joan Collins, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly.
Speaking during the debate, then Health Minister James Reilly said the government would not be changing its policy in this regard, citing the “serious concerns about the health impacts” of cannabis use.
He and several other TDs who opposed the bill described cannabis as a ‘gateway’ drug that often leads to people using more harmful substances.
Fine Gael did not respond to a request for comment on the issue this week. At a previous party Ard Fheis, delegates voted down a motion to legalise the use, sale and production of cannabis.
So, as we approach the general election, where do other parties and alliances stand on decriminalising and/or legalising cannabis?
When asked about the issue, a spokesperson for Labour noted that while in government the party ”moved to increase funding for local and regional drugs and alcohol taskforces”.
They did not directly address the cannabis question, but said Labour has begun work on a new national drugs strategy and will continue to support medically-supervised injecting centres.
We will establish a twin-track approach where the resources of the criminal justice system are targeted at the pushers and, at the same time, measures to reduce demand for drugs are implemented and medical supports are focused on the victims of drug abuse.
A spokesperson for Fianna Fáil told us the party does not support the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland, stating: “If the sale of cannabis was to be permitted, it would create a benign environment for illicit drug use to flourish.”
They did not comment on the decriminalisation issue. Around the time of Flanagan’s bill, the party told us it supported legalisation for medical purposes but not in any other circumstances.
Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on drug policy, Jonathan O’Brien, has gone on record as saying he favours decriminalisation of possession of small quantities for both personal and medicinal use.
He intends to bring forward a policy proposal to the party’s Ard Fheis in April “advocating strategies based on international best practice and harm reduction policies”.
A party spokesperson told us that Sinn Féin does not currently advocate any change to drug laws on cannabis or use of medical marijuana.
We are aware of the debate on decriminalisation and as a result are considering the evidence. Our final position will be guided by our commitment to individual and community harm reduction.
The Green Party
The Green Party told us it supports dealing with drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice one.
We support the Portuguese model of decriminalisation, and will examine such a system if returned to the next Dáil.
“Drug-related pathologies – such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage – have decreased dramatically since Portugal introduced decriminalisation.”
The Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) supports the decriminalisation of cannabis for both personal and medicinal use.
A spokesperson told us: “The reality is that a significant minority of people use cannabis. We oppose the criminalisation of these mainly young people.
[Cannabis] should be available to those who need it for health reasons through a national health service.
The AAA thinks that cannabis should be legalised to “remove it from the hands of gangs”. The alliance wants such a move to be accompanied by education about the effects of drug use and health services.
“[Cannabis] should be made available through a state monopoly to remove the potential for profiteering by private companies,” the spokesperson added.
People Before Profit
People Before Profit (PBP) says the state’s approach to drugs is “problematic”.
“Illegal drugs are sold widely, legal drugs such as alcohol are promoted via sporting events and pharmaceuticals are making huge profits on some very addictive and dangerous prescription drugs. PBP recognises the challenges faced by the many situations which relate to drug availability, use and dependency.”
If elected, PBP has the following drugs strategy:
- Overhaul what and how children and young people are taught about drugs in schools … about the effect of drugs, their composition and contents, and the potential dangers and realities of drug consumption;
- Recognise drug dependency as a medical problem, not a criminal one;
- Decriminalise drugs based on the Portuguese model and the non-commercial legalisation of cannabis similar to the Colorado example.
A spokesperson for Renua Ireland told us the party is not in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, an outright decriminalisation of cannabis or its decriminalisation for personal use.
They said Renua is “open to debate to the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes”.
A spokesperson for the Social Democrats said the new party does not yet have a stance on the issue but views it as “incredibly important”. They added that the subject will be examined “with a view to developing a defined policy stance”.
The Independent Alliance did not reply to a request for comment on the issue.