Dáil debates

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Cannabis Regulation: Motion [Private Members]


9:35 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Fianna Fáil is opposed to this motion. The legalisation of cannabis in Ireland will do little to curb criminality while simultaneously jeopardising the health of generations of Irish people. The appeal of taking a libertarian approach to this problem is a failure of our responsibility to protect society from the harmful effects of drug abuse and the inevitable violent criminality it brings with it. Deputy Flanagan's misguided enthusiasm - I say that respectfully - for this project down through the years belies the all-too-real dangers of cannabis. I acknowledge, however, that Deputy Flanagan is a lifelong, consistent campaigner on this issue.

As legislators, we have a duty to pursue the common good. The damage that legislating cannabis would inflict upon innumerable people across the county is a breach of that duty. This attempt to liberalise drug use demonstrates a deeply flawed view of the common good.

It is particularly ironic that, in a time when we are ramping up efforts to cut down on smoking, we are now discussing the addition of a further dangerous substance to people's lives. Efforts to introduce plain packaging and copperfasten the smoking ban introduced by Deputy Martin are the new front line in snuffing out tobacco use in Ireland. The work and progress made in tackling tobacco usage and its detrimental impact on health will pale in comparison to the challenges presented by widescale cannabis use. It begs the question as to why we would escalate a public health crisis by adding a new toxic substance into the mixture, which question underpins the whole debate on this subject. Why would we risk undoing the good work achieved to date? Proponents of legalisation have not put forward a reasonable answer to that question.

I would like to confront a number of other claims made by advocates in favour of legalisation. Many of the arguments put forward by advocates of the Bill point out the grave problems that alcohol abuse has inflicted upon Irish life. Undoubtedly, our collective national drink problem costs the Irish taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro per annum in health and security costs. By contrast, proponents of legalisation claim that cannabis has no such drawbacks. However, this is ultimately an argument in favour of prohibiting alcohol and not legalising cannabis. Unconsciously advocating for the Volstead Act does not mean endorsing the legalisation of cannabis. This is not a prohibition-era discussion. Our efforts to tackle the ongoing problems of endemic alcohol abuse in Ireland should not be diverted with a tangential attempt to legalise cannabis.

It is extremely difficult to remove organised criminal groups from a business if they are already involved. Any move to regulate the cannabis trade or licence it would inevitably result in the creation of a shadow economy to undercut the legitimate trade. Evidence of this can be seen all too clearly in the case of other substances, such as tobacco, cigarettes and alcohol. The €300 million industry estimate ignores the continual criminal role in the area. These products are sold and licensed in Ireland but there is an equally vibrant black market trade in the substances. Evidence has shown that consumers are not concerned with quality so much as price.

The legitimate trade in cigarettes and tobacco in parts of Dublin has virtually collapsed because of the black market trade. Regulating the trade and use of cannabis would likely cause the illegal trade to flourish as it would create a benign environment for drug use to take place and would probably strengthen the hand of organised crime gangs that would benefit from it.

It is worth noting the problems the Dutch are facing with regard to the position they adopted in 1976 when they decriminalised possession of less than 5 g in 1976. Amsterdam is now a centre of operations for most major organised crime outfits and a hub of hard drug distribution. The areas where coffee shops sell cannabis all suffer from late-night disturbances, traffic jams and hard drug-dealing because of cross-border visits from Belgium and Germany, where cannabis cannot be bought openly. The Dutch have attempted to repeal the laws but have backed down because they are too afraid that the country's drug-using population will cause further problems if they cannot source drugs from existing coffee shops.

It is worth noting that people licensed to produce cannabis for their own use would inevitably sell to friends and associates. Rather than prevent people from getting a criminal record, allowing people to produce a drug would inevitably encourage them to engage in petty dealing, therefore causing more problems for the justice system. The motion, as proposed, is effectively unenforceable and would be impossible to police.

Much of the discussion on the health impact of cannabis strikes me as dangerously naive. It ignores the variety of cannabis available and the dangerous impact it has on users. The cannabis on sale in Ireland at the moment is primarily skunk grass, which is grown in secret grow-houses under lights. By contrast, during the 1980s about 70% of cannabis consumed in Ireland and Britain was cannabis resin, or hashish, imported from north Africa. It was produced from the wild-growing cannabis sativa in Morocco. This skunk is usually twice as potent as cannabis resin although both are synonymous with triggering schizophrenia and mental health issues in certain types of people. Skunk is produced by crossing cannabis sativa and indica to produce a hardy plant that can be cultivated indoors. Skunk is genetically modified to such an extent that it bears no resemblance to the cannabis that would have been smoked in the 1960s.

The motion makes no reference to what sort of cannabis plant would be permitted in Ireland. If it were to become legal, criminals would simply undercut any legitimate trade to control the market by producing more potent plants. Criminals who grow the drug in Ireland are already focused on increasing the strength of the high from the crop they produce. One way they do this is by selecting plants that are naturally more potent; another is to use lights to mimic the effect of autumn on the female plant. This causes it to produce more resin in a last-ditch attempt to pollinate itself before winter, and the resin is what makes it stronger. The varying potency of the drug would inevitably create different markets, with criminal enterprises moving into one area over another.

In short, cannabis is harmful. Ireland's psychiatric hospitals are literally overwhelmed with young men who have developed psychiatric problems by using cannabis or newer varieties of it.

If one considers that all pharmaceutical drugs and foods undergo rigorous testing to see if they cause side effects, one can see the difficulties with permitting cannabis to be sold.

In straitened economic times the idea of a viable commercial industry providing employment and making a contribution to the Exchequer might seem appealing. However, the reality of attempting to commercialise cannabis production and sales throws up insurmountable problems. Any legitimate business which would enter into cannabis manufacture would, of course, have to secure insurance to operate. Given that tobacco and cigarette companies are being sued for selling products which cause cancer, it is hard to imagine how any limited company could comply with any human resources, employment and health legislation, given the activities in which it would be involved. In terms of regulation, would persons with criminal convictions be permitted to produce cannabis? The reality is that established dealers with expertise in the area are involved in overtly criminal enterprises. The vista of a cannabis regulation authority would do nothing to curb criminal engagement.

In 2010 the then Fianna Fáil Government took a strong stance in addressing the problem of psychoactive substances being sold in so-called head shops. Criticism of the measure focused on the claims that banning head shops would do nothing to actually reduce the use of these dangerous substances, that it would, in effect, drive them underground. In fact, the end result of the decisive measures taken against these substances was to significantly curb their usage, in particular among vulnerable adolescents. There is a lesson to be drawn from that experience in this debate. Eliminating head shops and banning dangerous substances that treaded the boundary of legality was a positive measure to protect young people. Legalising cannabis would be a perverse application of the lessons learned in that experience. If the sale of cannabis was to be permitted, it would create a benign environment for illicit drug use to flourish.

This debate provides an opportunity to reappraise how we resource the Garda in tackling drug fuelled criminality and whether resources would be better directed towards high-level suppliers rather than low-end users. Garda discretion is key in empowering the force to realistically tackle drug abuse. There must be a debate on the use of adult caution and the impact the current system has on the administration of justice. It also behoves us to ask why drug abuse flourishes in our society and what we can do to address it. This is an immense task of dealing with both supply and demand and any drugs strategy must address both aspects. However, the principle that cannabis should be legalised is simply indefensible because the health and social risks are far too great for us to countenance. This is a deeply flawed measure reflecting faulty assumptions. We need to stand up to the allure of populist measures and do what is right for the greater good of the country.


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