- 06 May 21
A new wave of reefer madness has erupted in Ireland – and it is symptomatic of the deep lying, long-term failure on the part of Government to properly address this country's drug issues
The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has been widely criticised and mocked for claims published in the Irish Times that cannabis is the “gravest threat” to young people’s mental health in this country.
Here's Hot Press Assistant Editor Stuart Clark's take on what's been said...
I genuinely thought it was a Waterford Whispers-style parody at first, but then I re-read it and realised that, no, these professionals really are saying that homelessness, Covid, zero hour contracts, extortionate rents, online bullying, racism, alcohol misuse, heroin and being unable to access proper mental health care are lesser threats to the mental health of Ireland's under-18s than a substance it’s physically impossible to overdose on, and which numerous countries and American states have seen fit to either legalise or decriminalise in recent years.
Let’s for now be charitable and say they’ve been over-zealous in their choice of attention-grabbing headline statements, and move on to the other assertions made in the Irish Times article and the College's own press release.
They claim that there’s been a dangerous increase in cannabis’ psychoactive THC levels whereas I'm currently looking at a bar chart, which suggests that THC levels in Holland, the epicentre of European cannabis consumption and source of much of the leaf marijuana consumed in Ireland, haven't gone up in the past twenty years. It's impossible to categorically say what THC levels in Ireland are because, of course, it's not regulated and there's no co-ordinated testing of marijuana other than what's been seized by customs and the Gardai, which isn't necessarily representative of the overall picture.
We should also take serious note of Dana Larsen’s examination of cannabis potency levels dating back to the 1930s, set against the claims that have been made. If the Canadian author and politician has done his sums correctly, according to the scare stories propagated by proponents of draconian drug laws – and their media messengers – weed is currently 12,600 times stronger now than it was in the 1930s.
Sorry, I'll read that again, in case you misunderstood. If we take all of the claims about increases in the potency of cannabis, over the period since 1930, cannabis is now 12,600 times stronger than it was then. In other words, this business of claiming that THC levels are higher or cannabis is stronger has been done hundreds of times, and generally with an equal lack of proper supporting evidence.
"Mental health issues associated with cannabis use include psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal behaviour,” the College of Psychiatrists maintains.
We’ll hand that one over to addiction specialist GP Dr. Garrett McGovern who has been working in this area on an ongoing basis and knows the situation on the ground intimately.
"The vast majority of people who use cannabis do so without any significant problems at all," Dr. McGovern says. "This is not an attempt to minimise its harms which can include depression, anxiety and in predisposed people, psychosis. However, I would argue strongly that criminalising people who use cannabis increases stigma and causes greater harm. I would go a step further though. A regulated product with known doses of THC and other constituents has to be safer than foraging around on the black market for a product of dubious quality and a potentially higher concentration of THC."
You can find more from Dr. McGovern who sees young people with substance abuse difficulties on a daily basis in his Dublin clinic at https://bit.ly/3eYXtCL and, behind a paywall, the list of 18 Irish doctors and overseas colleagues who want to see the laws surrounding cannabis reformed as a matter of urgency: https://bit.ly/3nSnNCw
There are different ways in which Ireland might evolve much better and more effective regulation of drugs of any and every kind. However, it is worth noting here that no one involved in the decriminalisation or legalisation campaigns in Ireland has ever suggested that cannabis be used without a prescription by under-18s. Indeed, many are in favour of limiting it to over-21s and throwing the full force of the law at those who sell to minors.
The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland press release and subsequent Irish Times article are also notable for what they don't address. In particular, they ignore entirely the evidence-based harms caused by prohibition. One of the biggest being that it creates a space in which Spice – a synthetic cannabinoid that’s at near epidemic levels in the UK and a growing problem here – can proliferate. Also sold under brand names like Black Mamba, Vertex and Clockwork, so called Spice shares many of heroin’s addictive qualities and, according to the findings of the Global Drug Survey of over 100,000 recreational drug users, is thirty times more likely to result in people seeking emergency medical treatment than the herbal varieties it mimics.
Spice has been described as “a scourge that’s ravaging entire communities,” by the Scottish Health Ministry. But here's the key point which simply cannot be ignored, if we are to work our way to a more sensible, reasoned and science-based approach to the use of drugs: Spice is virtually non-existent in places where decriminalised or legal cannabis is available.
I also want to refer the College of Psychiatrists to the Debts, Threats, Distress and Hope: Towards Understanding Drug-Related Intimidation in Dublin’s North East Inner City report conducted by the Ana Liffey Drug Project for Dublin's NEIC and launched in January by Paschal Donohoe, which does exactly what it says it does on the label: https://bit.ly/3epLNdm
The bulk of the intimidation described here is a direct result of drug prohibition.
Once they've finished reading that, the thoughts of thirteen leading academics in the field of drug policy research who disagree with them on virtually every level can be found at https://bit.ly/2QYsQFA
It would have been nice also if, in the article and their statement, the College of Psychiatrists had addressed young people self-medicating with illegal and/or prescription drugs because they can’t access proper mental health care.
Talking in the current issue of Hot Press, musician David Balfe, AKA For Those I Love, has this to say: “I know that, for many of us, it’s very much to do with the necessity to self-medicate because there’s little to no access to traditional forms of therapy or counselling without a significant and unjustifiable upfront cost. People looking for immediate treatment, but who don’t have the financial wherewithal, are put on waiting lists that may be eight months long. Not really ideal when you need help now. You’re forced into more volatile methods of coping.
“I wasn’t able to break the hunt for oblivion until I had excellent treatment and was able to get access to the right medication and weekly therapy. That comes with a massive financial cost that I’ve only been lucky enough to be able to afford within the past few years. Many of my peers and their families don’t have that luxury.”
For anyone who seriously cares about these issues, it was evident that self-medication, as a result of poor or non-existent health care, would come up in the social media kickback to the College of Psychiatrists’ cannabis claims. And it has – repeatedly.
They may not realise it, but the College of Psychiatrists have actually provided a very compelling argument for legalisation of cannabis. Worried about people having no idea what the THC content of their cannabis is? Legalise it and put the percentage and other health information on the packet, so that people know exactly what they're taking.
Worried about their services being 'overrun'? Since legalising marijuana in 2014, Colorado, a state roughly the population of Ireland, has generated $1.63 billion from the taxation of weed, much of which has gone to schools and other public services. How many drug education, detox and counselling programmes could you fund with that sort of money?
I can't speak on behalf of the College of Psychiatrists, but personally I'd rather see the proceeds from the sale of cannabis going into that type of activity rather than to the criminal gangs we read about every day in the tabloids. And talking of newspapers, I'm disappointed but not particularly surprised that the Irish Times, a supposed 'paper of record', chose not to subject their claims to scrutiny.
What strikes me, as we consider these drug-related issues, none of which are remotely new, is the complete lack of leadership, political or otherwise, in trying to solve them. Now firmly bedded into his Minister for Drugs role, Fianna Gael’s Frank Feighan has done nothing so far to suggest that meaningful changes are going to occur under his watch; Fine Gael’s contribution during their last solo run at government was the adult caution scheme, a horrible fudge, which keeps drugs within the criminal justice system rather than treating it purely as a medical issue; and despite having drug-savvy people like Gary Gannon, Aodhán O Ríordáin and Fintan Warfield in their respective ranks, the Social Democrats, Labour and Sinn Féin don’t seem too bothered about making it a political issue.
They are wrong. It is a political issue, and a very serious one. Making the right decisions could be one of the most significant steps towards liberating disadvantaged communities from the ravages of both addiction and crime.
The Greens said in their last election manifesto that they're committed to decriminalising drugs, but it wasn’t a red line issue going into government and, unless something is going on behind the scenes that we don't know about, they have yet to use their influence to try and push anything resembling that agenda.
Meanwhile, Ireland continues to average a drug overdose a day, with a mental health service that’s not even remotely fit for purpose clearly a factor. All of which makes this new wave of reefer madness even more depressing. Bluntly put: those young people the members of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland profess to be worried about deserve far, far better.
Here’s just some of the responses generated by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland’s “gravest threat” claims. Let's just say that, on this, the College of Psychiatrists have got it very badly wrong.
In 8 years of mental health nursing in the city centre I met 1, that’s ONE, patient who had cannabis induced psychosis who, in that instance, had underlying mental health issues. I’d safely say it’s the shit pay for staff and underfunded services that are the real threat.
— LesBcookin (@LesBcookin) May 4, 2021
Prohibition causes this.The reason, high potency THC weed is the only option,is because gangs control the market.legalisation lets people choose milder cannabis,with CBD. Most people don’t like consuming something that gives them paranoia and anxiety. Health based model please pic.twitter.com/wGl34qdsLK
— The Blindboy Podcast (@Rubberbandits) May 4, 2021
Completely agree with Blindboy here. We need to have a adult conversation about weed in this country, quality, strength and all that. 👇 https://t.co/ndhO1GRJhj
— David McWilliams (@davidmcw) May 4, 2021
Here are the relevant data. TBH, I was shocked with the low quality of cannabis that is/was sold in Ireland.
Hash with 1.13% THC is just cut down rubbish
The imported weed is (guessing here) perhaps outdoor weed from Thailand ? I remember those bags of leaves and bird seed 😂 pic.twitter.com/Yc8O5JKkod
— PieterHog (@PieterHog) May 4, 2021
That’s a funny way to spell “housing crisis, insecure employment conditions, low wages, lack of mental healthcare, bad social safety nets, and the burden of knowledge that things don’t seem to be getting better”
— Fionn Mitchell (@_dedloq_) May 4, 2021
— Dr Órfhlaith Campbell (@drorfh) May 4, 2021
Regulation is the best way to prevent Spice from being sold to young people as cannabis vape juice & jellies. By controlling the market a balance of natural cannabinoids & terpines can be bred. Only those profiting oppose regulation #CannabisReformIrelandhttps://t.co/Hx2cb7mAD2
— Graham de Barra ⚡ (@GramsdB) May 4, 2021
— Cork Cannabis Activist Network (Ireland) (@Cork_CAN) May 4, 2021