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.