Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Cannabis Regulation: Motion [Private Members]
In recent days, I asked for contributions from constituents on the issue of legalising cannabis. It is an issue that attracts a strong reaction with those in favour of legalisation tending to shout louder than those who are against it. As drugs go, both legal or otherwise, it is fair to say that cannabis is not of the more serious variety. There does not tend to be the same widespread social disruption as a result of persons regularly using cannabis, as opposed to persons who may be alcoholic, for example, or are intravenous drug users. That, in itself, though, is not a strong enough argument for legalisation. The link between prolonged cannabis use and mental health-related illnesses, has been proven in some instances and should not be dismissed lightly. We must listen to those working at the front line in our addiction services, who have seen persons present who find it very difficult to end cannabis use.
In the UK, we know that from January 2004 to January 2009, the law relating to cannabis was relaxed. In effect, cannabis went from being a class B drug to a class C drug. A Newcastle University study showed that during the same period, smoking of the drug increased in the UK by 25% and smoking in general increased by 8%. Despite the smoking ban in Ireland, our per capita smoking levels are quite high in comparison to the UK or the US. That is something we would need to think very carefully about if we were to legalise any new product such as cannabis, that can be smoked with or without tobacco. The last thing Ireland needs is more smokers with society as a whole paying for the added burden on our health system.
Notwithstanding my reluctance to embrace legalising cannabis, I acknowledge that there may be ways we can examine changing the current system to better effect. In the past week, many young people have contacted me about how their experimentation with cannabis when younger has caused them problems, specifically in regard to work and visa applications. Some of them were caught in possession of relatively small amounts of the drug.
Perhaps we need to examine the model adopted in Portugal and elsewhere where decriminalisation has been introduced. I have listened to people like Tony Geoghegan from the Merchant's Quay project, who referenced this model in recent days, and I believe we should examine it. In Portugal, the authorities have decriminalised possession of specified amounts for personal use. If one is caught in possession, one must face a panel, which could comprise a doctor, social worker or a judge who would decide one the best course of action, be it a fine, penalty or, as is often the case, a course of drug treatment and counselling. If one is caught in possession of amounts larger than amounts associated with personal use, one must face the judicial system. Since the introduction of decriminalisation in Portugal, drug use has declined significantly, and the way the citizens view addiction has also changed.
With regard to the issue of cannabis for medicinal use, many of those who contacted me in recent days outlined in great detail how using cannabis helps them with illnesses such as motor neurone disease and MS. I note that the Irish Medicines Board has recently approved the cannaboid spray Sativex, which is also available under strict conditions in the United Kingdom. The medical aspect needs to be examined.
This is a debate well worth having, and I congratulate Deputy Flanagan on tabling the motion. We do need to consider every possible way of tackling imaginatively and progressively societal problems arsing from illegal drug use. From a medical point of view, I believe the use of cannabis by persons suffering from MS and motor neurone disease should be permitted. I am not convinced that legalisation is the answer but believe we should begin to consider decriminalisation as a way of prioritising drug rehabilitation over jail so society as a whole will benefit.