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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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Debate Room Should we legalise medicinal cannabis?

There’s a demand for medicinal marijuana among groups of people suffering from ill-health, but is it safe?

LEGISLATION AROUND MEDICINAL cannabis is back on the political agenda today, with a bill tabled in the Dáil.

The Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulations Bill 2016 proposes to allow those with incurable illnesses like MS, to buy oils, sprays and tablets made from the drug to alleviate their pain. The Private Members’ Bill would also regulate a pharmacy-based model.

But does medicinal cannabis actually work? And doesn’t cannabis have an adverse effect on some users’ mental health? These are important, unanswered questions about its use.

We ask a politician and a doctor to give their views.

Gino Kenny, People Before Profit TD for Dublin Mid-West

Irish parliament sits Niall Carson Niall Carson

WHEN I GOT elected last February one of the issues that I wanted to highlight was accessibility to medicinal cannabis.

I had very limited knowledge about the issue prior to being elected. A family from Clondalkin whose child was suffering from Dravet Syndrome – a very aggressive and intractable form of epilepsy – made contact to see if I could highlight the issue of CBD oil and its therapeutic benefits.

In July, I introduced the Medicinal Cannabis Use Regulation Bill 2016 to the Dáil to try and begin the debate about the medical benefits of medicinal cannabis. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Positive political response

The political consensus has been one of positivity. The high profile case of Vera Twomey’s daughter Ava, who has a diagnosis of Dravet Syndrome, has been a game changer.

Vera’s campaign for accessibility for treatment has brought about a review from the Department of Health on the viability of medicinal cannabis in Ireland. The report will be concluded by the end of January.

Later today I will be looking for support for this bill on the accessibility of medical cannabis for those who need quality assured medicinal cannabis for their medical needs, under a doctor’s recommendation. The bill also calls for a Cannabis Regulatory Authority and a Cannabis Research Institution to be set up.

We’ll be following other countries

At the moment over ten countries in Europe have enacted legislation for the medicinal use of cannabis. Outside Europe nearly thirty states in the United States have made medicinal cannabis legal. Australia did the same recently.

Professor Mike Barnes commissioned an All Party Parliamentary report for Westminster on the massive benefits of medicinal cannabis to the sufferers of chronic pain, MS, arthritis, cancer, epilepsy, fibromyalgia and a list of other disorders and conditions.

I believe the debate has started in Ireland in regards to medicinal cannabis and things are never going to be the same again. Policy and legislative change has to happen and will happen due to the public clamour for this Government to act.

Make it medicine

The time for stigmatisation and criminalisation of citizens who want to treat their own medical needs has to be enacted now.

It was the visionary and forward-thinking Irish doctor, Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who brought the medicinal use of cannabis back into the medical mainstream in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Let’s continue his forward-thinking and vision in this century. Make it medicine. Make it happen.

Professor Brendan Kelly, professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin

Photo Prof B Kelly

CANNABIS IS BAD for mental health. The scientific evidence is now clear on this point.

The overwhelming majority of studies demonstrate that cannabis increases the risk of mental ill-health, in the form of depression, schizophrenia and various other conditions.

Cannabis is widely used even though illegal

As with all drugs, not everyone is affected equally. Some people seem unaffected and other factors are invariably also relevant in each individual case.

But the scientific evidence is now clear that cannabis presents a significant risk to mental health and should be avoided. The fact that decriminalisation does not produce a rise in mental illness simply demonstrates that cannabis is very widely used even though it is illegal.

So what should policymakers do?

Saying that cannabis presents a substantial risk to mental health does not provide a clear answer as to whether or not cannabis should be decriminalised.

Drugs policies are generally very inconsistent in theory and even more inconsistent in practice. In Ireland, some harmful substances are legal but their use is regulated (e.g. nicotine and alcohol), whereas other harmful substances are simply illegal (e.g. cocaine).

It is not at all clear what lessons can be learned from experiences with these substances.

Sensible drugs policy should focus on reducing the harm caused by all drugs, including cannabis. Given the widespread harm drugs cause in society, pragmatism should trump ideology. Preventing or relieving the suffering caused by addiction should trump short-term political tactics or populist media posturing.

There are better painkillers available to us

The fact that cannabis presents a risk to mental health should certainly inform drugs policy, but it does not necessarily mean that cannabis should remain illegal, or that medicinal use should be avoided. The situation is far more nuanced than that.

Cannabis will never be an ideal medicine for pain relief, not least because there are other non-dependence producing medications which can and should remain first-line agents in the management of pain.

Many of these other medications do not present risks to mental health and they still offer substantial benefits to people with chronic pain or enduring physical health problems.

If, however, these first-line agents fail to produce sufficient benefits, or cannabis-based products are the only agents that work in particular cases, then cannabis-based medications should be permitted in specific circumstances.

As ever, pragmatism should trump ideology, and the absolute imperative to relieve avoidable suffering should trump everything else.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

‘I’ve seen this work’: Mother takes fight for medical cannabis to Leinster House>

92% of Irish people believe that cannabis should be legalised when recommended by a doctor>

Gino Kenny TD & Professor Brendan Kelly
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