No plans to legalise cannabis, Harris insists

Simon Harris.

The health minister has rejected claims by senior doctors that Ireland is recklessly sliding towards the general legalisation of cannabis.

Simon Harris was responding to claims by the newly-formed Cannabis Risk Alliance (CRA) that moves to legalise medicinal cannabis will act as a gateway for the introduction of the legalised supply and sale of the drug for recreational purposes.

The CRA, formed by GPs, addiction specialists, and psychiatrists, is staunchly opposed to general legalisation, arguing that “there has been a gross failure to communicate to the people of Ireland the harms which are being caused by cannabis”.

Mr Harris said in response that there were “no plans” for the general legalisation of cannabis.

“It is important the department’s work on medicinal cannabis is not misinterpreted as decriminalising or legalising access to controlled drugs, promoting the use of cannabinoids or diminishing the harms associated with illicit cannabis use,” said a department statement.

The Department of Health and the minister will continue to work with medical professionals in this area but it cannot be clearer that it has no plans to legalise cannabis, or any other controlled drug.

Over the weekend, 20 doctors signed an open letter under the CRA banner, saying that the scale of the medical benefits from products containing cannabis extracts was “grossly distorted” and that TDs “seem unaware” of the distinction between decriminalising some products for medical use and allowing full legalisation of cannabis.

They said the experience in Canada and many US states showed that “medical cannabis campaigns have proven to be effective Trojan horse strategies on the road to full legalisation and commercialisation”.

Cannabis is now the most common drug responsible for new cases treated at the country’s addiction centres, accounting for 39% of new cases in 2017. In total, 2,200 people were treated for cannabis addiction that year out of a total of 8,922 people.

The doctors say cannabis users are at risk of memory loss, impaired thinking, and “severe mental disorders, particularly psychosis”, as well as the physical damage caused by smoking.

Vera Twomey, who fought a long campaign to secure medicinal cannabis to manage her daughter’s life-threatening epilepsy, said it was “devastating” to hear her efforts being described as a ‘Trojan horse’.

She invited campaigning doctors to come to her home to see the difference medicinal cannabis has made to eight-year-old Ava’s life.

“She’s at school today, she’s thriving, she hasn’t been admitted to hospital as an emergency in two years. Now she’s having a life free of pain,” said Ms Twomey.

The Department of Health is developing a Medical Cannabis Access Programme to facilitate access to cannabis-based products for patients with specific conditions.

Currently, doctors must get a special licence from the Minister for Health to enable patients to source such products from the Netherlands. To date, 20 licences have been issued, but the HSE has also approved three cases for reimbursement of purchase and travel costs.

Separately, the Department of Health and the Department of Justice and Equality are jointly exploring alternative approaches to criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use, with a view to treating substance misuse and drug addiction as primarily a public health issue.

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