Time to clear the air on cannabis
Users believe cannabis – most popular with higher socioeconomic groups – is now socially acceptable, and most people would like it legalised for medicinal use. But should it be?
Cancer patient Aodh Rua: “I’m the one guy in the chemo ward not getting sick and moaning about the horrible treatment. I wish the rest of those beside me could feel the same but we are limited by the law.” Photograph: Provision
‘I live at home with my dad and I smoke weed in front of him and it doesn’t faze him in the least. There is no taboo with it anymore,” explains Pauline Scanlon, a singer from Dingle and a habitual cannabis user.
As cannabis users go, Scanlon is in fact in the minority. The majority of users, according to a National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACD) report published this week, are male. Of those who have tried it in their lifetime, 35 per cent are from higher socioeconomic groups such as professionals, managers or civil servants. Of the general population, one in four 15- to 64-year-olds have tried cannabis in their lifetime, which is an increase of 3 per cent on the last survey conducted in 2006/07.
Lifetime usage rates were also highest among those who ceased education at 20 or those who completed third level, compared with those who left school at 15, indicating its popularity among higher socioeconomic groups. Students and those dependent on State aid were most likely to have used cannabis in the past month.
The study also highlighted the increased preference for cannabis herb or weed over cannabis resin in recent years. In 2007, 53.8 per cent of cannabis used was hash, which declined to 22.6 per cent in 2011. The use of cannabis herb jumped from just 8.4 per cent of the cannabis used in 2007, to 46.5 per cent in 2011, as more drugs are being grown, harvested and consumed here.
Despite a feeling among cannabis users that the drug has become more socially acceptable, the report found that 69 per cent of the general population is against legalising recreational cannabis use, while 66 per cent would be in favour of allowing cannabis use solely for medical purposes.
The Irish Medicines Board has received a market authorisation application from a pharmaceutical company for Sativex, a cannabinoid mouth spray. Following the publication of the NACD report, Minister Alex White said that plans are at “quite an advanced stage in preparing regulations to allow for a very limited availability of cannabis for medical purposes”.
Dr Chris Luke, consultant in emergency medicine at Mercy University Hospital in Cork, has given the news a guarded welcome but issued some reservations.
“So-called ‘medicinal use’ of cannabis, and products derived from the many ingredients of the cannabis plant, is arguably a Trojan horse for the liberalisation of cannabis availability,” he says.
“The scientific evidence supporting medicinal application of cannabinoids remains only marginally positive and the ‘medicalised’ version of the drug brings with it serious hazards, most notably cognitive impairment [of concentration and memory] and occasional ‘mental illness’.”
One of those patients currently relying on cannabis for medicinal purposes is 21-year-old Aodh Rua, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma two years ago. Prior to this, he had used cannabis recreationally, but he says he now relies on the drug to help him to get through chemotherapy.
“I have a lot of problems with chemo including loss of appetite and nausea,” he says. “Cannabis worked better than anything they could give me in hospital. When I ran out of dope, I’d be throwing up for 12 hours non-stop. When I have dope, I would barely notice there was anything wrong with me. It made that kind of difference.”
Rua says he is not as interested in the cannabis spray that is being suggested for medical use and prefers to buy it in its original, herbal form. He has come to know which types of cannabis work best for him and he sticks to trusted suppliers. He believes the vast majority of people have no problem with the Government legalising cannabis for medicinal use and many doctors are aware patients use it.
“I’m the one guy in the chemo ward not getting sick and moaning about the horrible treatment. I wish the rest of those beside me could feel the same, but we are limited by the law.”
While acceptance of medicinal use of cannabis is progressing, those at the frontline of substance addiction lead arguments against legalising recreational use of cannabis.
Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director of the Rutland Centre, says she finds it hard to understand how the drug is so socially acceptable, given its effects. “For the past 10 years, I have found the attitude to cannabis in this country incredible. There is a lot of evidence internationally about the damage it does but people still hold on to the view that it is a recreational drug and the lesser of all the evils out there.”
Similarly, at the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre in Kilkenny, where 15- to 21-year-olds are treated for addiction, family services manager Geraldine Hartnett says cannabis use is present in the majority of cases they come in contact with. “The trends we are seeing are that approximately 95 per cent of young people who come into us identify cannabis as one of their drugs and, in some cases, their main drug. “We were struck by the fact that there is this call to make it legal and it seems to be more socially acceptable.”
Independent TD Luke “Ming” Flanagan, who has long campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, believes it is only a matter of time before steps are taken to make it legal in Ireland. He will introduce his own cannabis legalisation bill in the Dáil in the autumn, and he points to other countries and states where it has been made legal in recent years.
“Places such as Colorado and Washington are legalising it, as well as Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico. There is an evolution taking place. Legalisation is on the way here and I don’t think anything will stop it,” he says.
Colin Bolger, who is 26, has been unemployed for three years, and is a regular cannabis user who believes it should be made legal. He says that he has noticed how much more accepting society has become of the drug in recent years.
Bolger lives in a small town in Co Tipperary and knows many cannabis users in his area. Those for whom it creates difficulties may have underlying issues and should probably steer away from the drug, he believes. “If people are smoking it because they are feeling bad or in a bad place, it is not a miracle worker. If you are not okay mentally then smoking cannabis is not good for you,” he says.
The drawbacks for him are cost (regular users can spend upwards of €150 a week) and also ensuring he is not caught with the drug by gardaí.
One former user is 21-year-old graduate Lorcan Murray, who decided to give up cannabis a month ago to concentrate on sports. Murray says he never met a single person against the drug in college, where he found cannabis was very accepted. He warns, though, that the full picture in relation to cannabis is not always told.
“I know people who are long-term unemployed and all they do is smoke weed and they fall into that pit. Nobody is out there telling the truth about cannabis,” he says. “I don’t hear many on the pro-cannabis side calling for moderation. I first smoked it when I was 16 years old and I was smoking heavily by the time I was 19. I see 16-year-olds smoking a lot now and they don’t realise their bodies and minds are still developing.”
Murray says the perception is that the drug is not addictive but that this is not necessarily accurate. “I have learned that because I really had to pull it together to make it out of college. The other side of it is that there are no jobs at present. For some people I know they see it as the only way of making a bit of money, buying large amounts and selling it off in bits and then saving a bit for their own use.”
While Murray says he may return to the drug, he thinks society needs to have a more candid debate about the drug before legalisation is considered. “Nobody is out there telling the truth about cannabis. One side is saying it is a bad thing and you should never touch it. The other side is saying don’t worry as it is not that bad.”