Irish Doctors Support Cannabis Bill

Two prominent addiction specialists believe it’s time to face medical facts and legalise cannabis here.

Luke Flanagan TD’s private members’ Cannabis Regulation Bill 2013 was officially unveiled on October 24 at Buswells, the Dublin 2 hotel located across the road from Dáil Éireann.

It’s summarised as: “An act to provide for the regulation of cannabis for medicinal and recreational use and for that purpose to establish the Cannabis Regulation Authority; to provide for the licencing of the cultivation and sale of cannabis; to provide for offences, and to provide for related matters.”

The tagline Flanagan has come up with to accompany the draft legislation is: “Eliminate criminal profit. Grow the economy. Reduce harm.”

Further details of the Cannabis Regulation Bill 2013 were embargoed as the time of going to print, but can be found on hotpress.com, along with photos and reaction from the launch of the bill, which will be discussed in the house on November 6.

The Buswells event also marked the official launch of an Irish chapter of NORML, the American organisation, which drove last year’s successful referenda campaigns to legalise marijuana in Colorado and Washington states.

One of the notable things about NORML Ireland is that two of its board are general practitioners, who have 40 years of specialising in addiction treatment between them.

Dr. Garrett McGovern will already be familiar to Hot Press readers, having participated in our 2011 report into Ireland’s neglected heroin problem.

“I’m supporting this bill because I’d like to see some rational debate around a sensible drug policy,” says McGovern, who’s set up his own alcohol and substance abuse clinic in Dundrum. “My feeling is that we haven’t had that yet in this country. My personal view is that there are far more advantages to legalising cannabis than keeping it prohibited.

“I’m in regular contact with doctors in the UK and many parts of Europe and the States where they’ve already had a nuanced debate, and moved towards either decriminalisation or all-out legalisation,” he expands. “I’m aware of quite a few Irish GPs, specialists and other healthcare professionals who share my point of view, but are worried about speaking out. I think it’s really important that they put those concerns to one side, and give us their input.”

Asked why Ireland lags behind the likes of Belgium, Holland and Portugal in terms of coming up with new thinking on cannabis, McGovern states: “We pander to the electorate and end up making decisions based on how things play out in the media rather than an actual analysis of the relative harms of these drugs, such as cannabis.”

So rather than medical experts, it’s Joe Duffy’s listeners and Paul Williams’ readers who determine Irish drug policy?

“You could say that,” he concurs.

We’d love to know what the current government’s thoughts are on drug law reform but, despite repeated requests, they’ve declined to make anyone available for interview. It wasn’t always the case, with Fianna Fáil’s then new man with responsibility for drug strategy, Eoin Ryan, telling us in 2001 that, “No one should go to jail for the personal use of cannabis.”

The Minister, who’d previously admitted a youthful flirtation with marijuana, went on to state that, “I don’t believe cannabis is a gateway drug. That hasn’t been proven at all. As far as cannabis is concerned, the jury’s out. A lot of people put in the argument that we should legalise it. But the facts are there’s been very little decent research done on cannabis since the late ’70s.”

There still hasn’t, something Dr. Garret McGovern bemoans.

“The lack of accurate statistical data about cannabis, and other drugs, in this country is scandalous,” he says. “I’m fed up having to say, ‘In England this…’ and ‘In America that…’ How can a government formulate a drug policy without having the appropriate facts and figures?”

Echoing those sentiments, the other Dublin-based GP on the NORML Ireland board, Dr. Cathal Ó Súiliobháin, says: “They’ve made the right noises on occasion, but drugs simply aren’t a priority for the coalition.”

As for his involvement with NORML Ireland, he is unequivocal.

“I’m very happy,” he tells Hot Press, “to stand up and say, ‘Look, I’ve been treating drug users for 20 years. Based on my experience, the prohibition of cannabis is causing more harm than good and we should really look at reforming it.’

“Usually with the patients I see, the issues are getting into trouble with the law or school – and that creates family difficulties. They mostly come to doctors to have screenings and to demonstrate to the courts that they’re no longer taking it. The problem is that cannabis is illegal, not that they’re suffering adverse effects from it.

“Every single drug you take – even food items – cause problems. There are 400 deaths a year in the US from penicillin, but we don’t ban that. Making something illegal doesn’t stop people doing it; in fact with young people, especially, it encourages use.

“To be honest,” Ó Súiliobháin continues, “it’s a peripheral issue with me. The drugs that cause serious harm in Ireland are alcohol and tobacco; then you’ve heroin, cocaine and the head shop-style of chemicals; down the bottom are tea, coffee and cannabis. I don’t see it as a major drug problem.”

What about claims that cannabis – and the high-THC content strains of skunk in particular – can trigger psychosis?

“As far as I know, there’s no demonstrated causality between the use of cannabis and psychosis,” Ó Súiliobháin proffers. “There is an association – but there’s also a very strong association with tobacco and heavy alcohol use. I just think you take away the criminality, control and regulate it and provide treatment for the people – if any – who do have a problem associated with cannabis.”

Are the likes of Luke Flanagan, NORML Ireland and, indeed, Ó Súiliobháin himself preaching to the converted or is Ireland ready for a proper drugs debate?

“That’s a very deep question!” he laughs. “The reality is that a large part of the population have used cannabis without any ill-effects – including a significant number of people from the professional classes such as doctors, lawyers, policemen… priests possibly, I don’t know! They don’t need scientific studies to tell them it’s not ‘killer weed’. It’s not going to cause terrible chaos around the country. They understand that, but very few people will stand up and say it should be decriminalised, because they’ve nothing to gain – and probably quite a lot to lose – from doing so. Introducing this bill will be very good in that it will get the conversation started. The fact that we don’t have medicinal cannabis products available in Ireland – and their benefits are well-proven – shows how behind the times we are compared to most other parts of Europe, the US and Canada.”

Why, if cannabis is relatively so harmless, are Garrett McGovern and him the only Irish doctors openly supporting its regulated legalisation?

“The medical community here is extremely conservative; their training dictates that,” Ó Súiliobháin reflects. “They don’t want people out there doing ‘crazy’ stuff like suggesting a change in drug policy. You’re trained to be conservative, to follow your orders. We couldn’t even get a hundred people to vote in favour of abortion at the last Irish Medical Organisation AGM in Killarney. They voted against it; whereas the general population was polled at the time to be strongly in favour of it.

“I heard one of the Ministers a few years ago say, ‘Illegal drugs are illegal because they’re dangerous’. A lot of the general public who won’t have had contact with cannabis and seen it used would be of that opinion. They don’t really have the interest to read the research or look at alternative models like the States or Canada. Which was the exact same situation in the States and Canada 20 years ago! Public opinion does change, albeit slowly.”

Other healthcare professionals who support the legalisation of cannabis, but feel unable to express this publicly, can talk confidentially to Stuart Clark at (01) 24 11 500 or email [email protected]

 

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