IS THERE a person out there who won’t join in Cork mother Vera Twomey’s joy following news that medicinal cannabis could soon be legal in Ireland, asks Clodagh Finn
It saved her daughter’s life, she says.
No wonder there was widespread support for an opposition bill allowing cannabis for medical use, which passed through the Dáil on Thursday without a vote. The significant number of Irish people who gave hopeful testimony, describing how the drug brought relief from a range of chronic, painful conditions has been backed up by scientific evidence for some time.
However, it was one mother’s willingness to walk from Cork to Dublin to urge the Government to legalise cannabis that really struck a chord. Vera Twomey said her daughter Ava, 6, might be dead if she had not given her cannabis-derived cannabidiol (CBD).
Ava can suffer up to 20 seizures a day because of a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, but those seizures have been reduced by more than 80% after taking cannabis oil.
Someone did raise the point that cannabis has been shown to harm developing brains but, for now, questions on side effects appear to be for later.
As Gino Kenny, the People Before Profit TD who put forward the private member’s bill, said, there are more pros than cons for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis.
He quoted the recent Barnes report in the UK, which reviewed all the evidence and found a substantial body of clinical evidence to prove medical cannabis works.
The report’s author, Prof Mike Barnes, was unequivocal: “My report proves the drug [cannabis] can alleviate suffering for many sick people. The [UK] government must have the political courage to accept the scientific rationale.” That hasn’t happened yet but here, in July 2014, an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations allowed certain cannabis-based medicinal products to be used in Ireland. The new bill will go further, legalising medicinal cannabis, possibly as early as next Easter.
While Health Minister Simon Harris will table a number of amendments, he allowed the bill to progress to committee stage.
However, he did say, in no uncertain terms, that he did not feel the same about the legislation of cannabis for so-called recreational use. He would have a very different view of that, he said.
Campaigners have been adamant that this bill was about legislating medical rather than recreational cannabis, but it is almost impossible to separate the two. The irony inherent in cannabis use is that it is a drug that can both help and harm.
There is a solid and scientific case to be made for cannabis, the helpful medical drug, but there is an equally solid and scientific case to be made for cannabis, the drug that harms health.
Study after study has pinpointed a long list of health risks that are particularly marked for teenager users. Cannabis use damages the developing brain, yet our young people — those in the 15-24 age bracket — are among the highest users in Europe.
Cannabis can also damage lungs, cause anxiety and paranoia and, perhaps in most need of highlighting, increase the risk of mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.
You wouldn’t think so, though. For one thing, the term “recreational use” is, to put it kindly, a misnomer.
Judge Gerard O’Brien exposed our fuzzy and contradictory attitude to drug use at Cork Circuit Criminal Court last week when he said “what is recreational drug use for the upper middle class is scumbag drug use for those who live in less affluent areas”.
He said the term “designer drug” was a self-serving and justifying term and spoke of the “insidious normalisation of the consumption of illicit drugs”. Although he was not talking about cannabis, the terms designer drug and recreational drug are symptomatic of a prevailing attitude that considers cannabis to be a benign drug. It is not.
This single sentence, written by professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, Brendan Kelly, explains why. “As a psychiatrist, I see the clear negative effects of cannabis on mental health every single week in my clinical work in inner-city Dublin.” At the time, Prof Kelly was calling for a more nuanced approach to low-level drug use following last year’s recommendation from the Oireachtas justice committee that minor drug use should not be criminalised.
Let’s hope that what follows in the weeks and months to come will allow for that nuance. It seems inevitable the debate on decriminalising or legalising all cannabis use will be reignited by this recent bill.
There are many persuasive arguments to be made for the decriminalisation and/or legislation of cannabis. And certainly, it is hard to argue against the Oireachtas committee’s recommendation that small-scale users of cannabis should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system and with compassion.
But in all the debate — and it will come — let’s not lose sight of one crucial fact. Cannabis, legal or decriminalised, poses a health risk. The focus should be on how we manage that risk and reduce the considerable harm that it is already doing.
There are those who say they have been taking it quietly and inoffensively for years, without ill effect. That may well be so but there’s another discussion to be had on passive cannabis smoking. How many non-smokers find themselves shut out in the sober cold while the glassy-eyed, giddy and self-absorbed retreat into their own weedy world of “recreation”?
Not everyone agrees that the person who smokes a joint or two is less anti-social than the one who downs a few pints. What about the mood swings that can follow, or the bouts of lingering forgetfulness? It’s almost unsayable to suggest that ‘personal users’ impinge on those around them too.
Maybe the time has come to open up the discussion. But let’s try to keep it nuanced, reasoned and real. But most of all, to borrow the name of one drugs-policy lobby group, let’s strive to develop policies that help not harm.
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