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Dublin: 17°C Monday 15 August 2022

'I found that nothing worked, except cannabis': Who are Ireland's marijuana users?

Users tell about their experiences.

THIS WEEK STEPHEN Whiteley has been in court.

After a hearing on Thursday in Castlebar, Co Mayo, he was made to pay a fine of €250 for the possession of cannabis, and another €500 fine for the cultivation.

“I can’t complain too much, because she could have done me for a lot worse,” Whiteley said, “I don’t think [the judge] had much leeway to do much other than what she did.”

This happens everyday in courts around the country.

What makes it different is Whiteley’s condition.

“In 2009 I bent down to get into a car, and I was hit by the most incredible pain. I locked up completely. Totally unable to move for 20 minutes,” he told 

shutterstock_178918409 Source: Shutterstock/Doug Shutter

This resulted in the the 59-year-old former stage manager and steel worker being diagnosed with stenosis of the spine – and since then he has suffered from reduced mobility and spasms in his feet.

Shortly after this he was diagnosed with the eye condition glaucoma.

It was at that point that he started using cannabis to manage his condition, finding two strains he was able to take along with his prescribed medication that improved his level of comfort.

“If I have a little hit in the morning,” he says, “It gets me up and about and active. In the evening there was another [strain] that just calmed me and helped me to sleep. It also had an anti-spasmodic effect and an anti-cramp effect, which was massive.

I can’t tell you how much that helped.

Whiteley had been growing the cannabis in his own home, and hasn’t used the drug since being raided earlier this year.

Is Ireland changing its mind on medicinal use? 

Irish researchers have been involved in the use of cannabinoids and THC in therapeutic treatments – but the law is still absolutely clear that it is an offence.

Anyone found to be in possession can be charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and a first-time grower can face with jail time.

However, the issue is up for discussion.

Launch of Dublin's Abbey Theatre's 2016 programme Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Source: Niall Carson/PA Wire

At the start of this month Ireland’s Drugs Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin reinterated his long-time support for some form of decriminalisation – a move that was followed soon after by the publication of a report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality backing this standpoint.

The Garda Representative Association has also thrown its weight behind a change in legislation – stating that it would help free up resources.

cannabis policy - 1

A group aiming to be at the vanguard of any change to Irish drug policy is Norml Ireland, an organisation pushing for the decriminalisation and eventual legalisation of cannabis.

As the group’s director Thomas O’Connor explains

Norml Ireland is a diverse organisation of cannabis consumers who are well aware of the benefits cannabis can bring to us personally and to those around us.

One member of the group’s Women’s Alliance is Nicole Lonergan, a Cork-based 27-year-old who started using cannabis regularly three years ago.

Screenshot_2015-11-08-23-32-01-1 Nicole Lonergan

Since she was 13, Lonergan has suffered from an anxiety-based condition called trichotillomania that sees sufferers pull out the hair on their body, including from their head, eyebrows and eyelashes.

She attempted a variety of treatments to deal with this condition, including anti-depressants.

“I found that nothing worked, except cannabis,” explains Lonergan, “It’s my lifeline basically. It helps me cope with the urges. You feel like you’re on edge and you have to pull out these hairs or your body will collapse or freak out or something.”

So when that happens to me I would use my vaporiser and I would find the anxiety is reduced so therefore the urges are reduced. And I don’t have a pulling attack, which is great.

Since becoming a regular cannabis user she has stopped drinking alcohol and describes her life as changing “drastically, and in a positive way”.

Through Norml Ireland, Lonergan recently spoke to a woman whose son required cannabis oil for the treatment of his epilepsy.

“Cannabis is the only thing that will control the seizures that he has. And God love him, the young fella is only three-years-old and he has around 20 seizures an hour.”

While there is a dearth of research on treating epilepsy with cannabis, last year a study conducted in the United States showed effectiveness in some cases treating a specific form of the condition known as Dravet Syndrome.

In a statement last year Epilepsy Ireland acknowledged the work being done in the United States, but stated that it would be “neither possible nor ethical at this stage” to state whether cannabis or its psychoactive component CBD is safe and effective to use.

Cannabis is still illegal though, right? 

It is hard to get an accurate idea of the number of cannabis arrests in Ireland, as the Central Statistics Office bundles arrests for drug related crime together.

Last year 11,274 people were caught committing personal use offences – nearly double what the figure was in 2003, but down from a peak of 18,093 in 2008.

cannabis policy - 5

Although an exact number can’t be put on cannabis related arrests – Ireland has no shortage of users.

Last year, a Eurobarometer study found that among people aged 15 to 24 we had the highest rate of use in the EU, with 28% saying they had used it in the past year – well above the average of 17%.

As former steel worker Whiteley’s case shows, if you’re caught then you’re caught – and health issues are not a mitigating factor.

Director of Norml Ireland Thomas O’Connor was arrested for possession and cultivation four years ago when an anonymous call was put into gardaí about plants he was growing on his farm – an incident that took two years to go through the courts and resulted in a €4,000 fine.

“We run a shop in the centre of town, and we were worried after being arrested about how it would affect our business,” says O’Connor, who is active and well-known in his local community.

Rather than shying away from the matter, he went in the opposite direction, going fully public with his cannabis use by appearing in an article on the front of The Kerryman newspaper.

The response we got from people was fantastic. From grannies asking about it for their arthritis to kids saying, sure ‘we know what it’s like’.

Another cannabis user who has a head on way of dealing with the law is Stephen Kavanagh, founder of Wexford Cannabis Social Club.

Source: Fleetwood Mott/YouTube

The 33-year-old has been using cannabis for the past 10 years at various times for depression and muscle pain.

He now organises meetings to encourage discussion on the issue, inviting along GPs, addiction specialists and local councillors.

Stephen also makes sure that An Garda Síochána don’t feel left out:

Every event that I’ve organised I’ve contacted my local station. I’ve invited them to attend and speak at some events. I wrote to the two local superintendents for the last event which I held in June of this year.

For others, while they may not have had direct interaction with the gardaí, it’s a threat that hangs ominously.

“I have two boys, and I’m a great mommy”, says Candice Faulkner, a 28-year-old from Buncrana in Donegal. 

candice faulkner Candice Faulkner

“I’d be terrified if someone was to come in here and say, ‘right, you take cannabis, you can’t have those children’,” she says.

That might be a silly thought, but it is possible that I could get in trouble and it could affect my children.

Sure, would you not have a drink? 

Many cannabis users point to its use as an effective substitution to drinking.

“I think it’s like alcohol. I’m a disaster on alcohol,” says Candice.

“It doesn’t suit me. But then it doesn’t mean that other people can’t try it. It keeps me away from alcohol, and being crazy. Cannabis to me improves my life massively. All my friends, they’re into going out and getting drunk – any time I drink something bad happens to me.

If it wasn’t for cannabis I’d say I would probably still be going out every weekend and acting the whack. I’m getting a wee bit old for that.

Others report a similar experience.

“It gives more opportunity for self reflection. In regards to alcohol, you don’t have a lot of control if you drink to excess and you don’t have control over your actions. You may say things that you don’t mean,” says Nicole Lonergan.

It relaxes everything. There is no need for arguing over silly things. You just want to enjoy people’s company and just talk, there’s not silliness, no arguing, no fighting, and that’s why I love it.

Are attitudes actually changing?

While there may be strong arguments in favour of decriminalisation and eventual legalisation, large swathes of society remain unconvinced.

A poll earlier this month found that 43% of people in Ireland favour broad decriminalisation.

Questions still remain over links between cannabis and anxiety and its potential to aggravate psychosis in individuals predisposed to the condition. 

Despite this, internationally it is hard to deny that the mood music is changing.

In the past 5 years the Czech Republic, Jamaica, Uruguay and the United States have all taken steps towards the liberalisation of cannabis laws.

Earlier this month Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that users should be allowed to smoke the drug – and a bill has been introduced into the country’s senate that will create greater access for medical users.

Mexico Medicinal Marijuana Eight-year-old Maria Teresa Arguelles, who has epilepsy, outside the Mexican Senate earlier this month before the bill was introduced. Source: AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Norml Ireland knows what it wants the next step to be.

While all-out legalisation might be some way off – the group believes that cannabis social clubs should be included as part of any decriminalisation legislation.

These would give members access to a supply and allow them the ability to grow their own crops for personal use.

Oregon Pot Stores A cannabis dispensary in Oregon Source: Ryan Kang/PA Wire

Stephen Whitely stopped using cannabis four months ago, and since then his mobility has decreased to a stage where he now has to use a stick.

Seeking out cannabis from a street dealer wouldn’t do him much good, as it would be virtually impossible to gain consistent access to the two strains he had been using.

The positive impact the drug had on his health doesn’t make what he was doing any less illegal.

As Whitely puts it:

If you are caught out, you’re on your own. And if you are an older person or a medical user, it can be an awfully lonely place.

Read: Most men think decriminalising drugs is a good idea – but women aren’t so sure

Also: There’s going to be a great big march for cannabis today in Dublin

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