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Ireland “Sleepwalking” Into Cannabis Legalization, Claims Doctors Group

By Alexander Beadle

Published: May 22, 2019   
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Ireland is “sleepwalking” into the legalization of cannabis, according to a group of doctors who recently launched a new campaign against the drug’s legalization. 

In a letter sent to the Irish Times last week, the Cannabis Risk Alliance, which is made up of 20 senior Irish doctors, including the head of the College of Psychiatrists, Dr John Hillery, criticized the “one-sided discussion” surrounding cannabis in the media. 

The group claim that “there has been a gross failure to communicate to the people of Ireland [the] harms which are being caused by cannabis.” They are also calling for an “urgent and unbiased examination” of the public health effects of the drug and the initiation of a public education campaign to address what they feel is an “ignored crisis.”

“Decriminalization and medical cannabis campaigns have proven to be effective Trojan horse strategies on the road to full legalization and commercialization elsewhere such as the United States and Canada,” write the Alliance. “Both debates have provided an effective platform for the spreading of misinformation to the public, who are being kept in the dark regarding the harmful side to ‘weed’.”

With regards to cannabis’ “harmful side,” the doctors highlight the drug’s link with severe mental disorders and adolescent use as a major public health issue. While they don’t provide sources for this claim there is a widely cited 2010 review that comes to this conclusion. However, that study also mentions that genetic predisposition could be the key important factor, with cannabis use then exacerbating this pre-existing vulnerability. In either case, longitudinal and preclinical studies are needed on this topic. 

It is also worth noting that while cannabis drug use is associated with worse psychosis outcomes, the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) has been shown by researchers at King’s College London to have anti-psychotic properties in young people experiencing distressing psychotic symptoms. 

Cannabis smoke, the group go on to say, contains the same carcinogens and toxins as tobacco smoke, and so it should be assumed that cannabis use would bring with it the same medical risks associated with smoking cigarettes. While it is true to suggest that more research into cannabis smoke and vapor is needed, current studies suggest that cannabis use doesn’t mirror the same effects of tobacco smoke on the lungs. Also, given that tobacco smoking isn’t prohibited in Ireland, this is perhaps an odd comparison to draw when making the point that cannabis use should remain restricted. 

Shortly after the publication of the Alliance’s letter, the Irish Examiner interviewed justice minister Charlie Flanagan, who quickly rejected the group’s claim that the government was “sleepwalking” into legalization without properly considering risks associated with the use of cannabis. 

According to Flanagan, the government has already been considering all sides of the debate and its proposal to partially decriminalize the possession of cannabis and other drugs is expected to be presented to the country’s cabinet within the next few weeks. 

“Over the past number of months, we have been engaged at cross-departmental level and I believe the report, when published, will be balanced,” he stated. “But I'm not going to preempt its findings until it goes before government which I would expect to happen in the next three to four weeks.”

Drug law and policy has an odd history in Ireland. Notably, 2015 saw the country accidentally legalize the use of some Class A drugs for 24 hours, after a clause in the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act was ruled to be unconstitutional and government officials raced to correct it.

And back in 1974, a ruling in Dublin’s Circuit Criminal Court made cannabis consumption legal for an entire week, during which the people of Dublin were spotted smoking cannabis openly in pubs and generally reveling in cannabis being ‘legal’ for a short time.

As of 2019, medical cannabis can be legally prescribed in Ireland by consultants in special circumstances, though there are only a small number of patients receiving such treatment in the country. Under the current system, patients must obtain a special license from the Department of Health to use the drug which lasts three months initially, and then six months for subsequent licenses awarded. 

Nine-year-old Ava Twomey is one such licensed cannabis patient and relies on cannabis products to treat her severe epilepsy after traditional pharmaceuticals failed to alleviate her seizures. Discussing the Alliance’s letter on the RTÉ’s radio show Today with Sean O’Rourke, her mother and medical cannabis campaigner Vera Twomey said that is was “very distressing” to see doctors “coming out and talking about Trojan horses” in reference to the medical cannabis campaign.

Further actionable measures to regulate medical cannabis are expected to be laid out by the Cabinet Health Minister over the course of the coming weeks. An Irish-led private investment group has also recently expressed interest in opening a network of medical cannabis clinics in the country, following the opening of the group’s first clinic in Manchester, England. 

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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