Medical Cannabis; The 2016 Bill

FORMER UCC SSDP AUDITOR, OLIVIA TEAHAN, SPEAKS TO GINO KENNY TD AND DISCUSSES THE LEGALISATION OF MEDICAL CANNABIS UNDER THE 2016 BILL

In 2013, we saw Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan’s Cannabis Regulation Bill defeated in the Dáil. Most TDs opposed the full legalisation of cannabis. However, the debate on Ireland’s drug-related issues was most welcome, as was acknowledgement of the struggle that so many medicinal cannabis patients experience every day.

The debate sparked no significant change in the lives of Irish medicinal cannabis patients. A year later the Misuse of Drugs Regulations were amended to allow the use of certain cannabis-based medicinal products in Ireland, but again there was no effective change for those at the heart of the issue, the medicinal cannabis patients. Soon after that reform, the Health Products Regulatory Authority authorised the sale of the cannabis-based medicinal product Sativex®, which is particularly helpful for relieving some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, for example. However, the product never made it as far as the pharmacy shelves because the manufacturers and the HSE have yet to agree on a price.

What does this mean for those suffering from chronic illnesses who have found conventional treatments to be inefficient and want the choice of using cannabis-based medicine? Many turn to street-bought cannabis, where quality and prices are unregulated and in addition to suffering from chronic illness many also live in fear of being criminalised.

“While sick people in every part of Ireland are forced to self-medicate and suffer in silence, Dáil Éireann has put their struggle on the back burner.”

The 2016 Bill

download-3In July 2016, TD Gino Kenny’s Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill was introduced to Dáil Éireann by TD Bríd Smith of the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit Party. The Bill proposes a system of licensed distributors of medicinal cannabis products. It also proposes that strict regulations be put in place to ensure the sales and holding of these products are in the hands of licensed pharmacists and that such products are used for medicinal purposes.

Only a minority of TDs have openly acknowledged the need for legal reform in the area of medicinal cannabis. While sick people in every part of Ireland are forced to self-medicate and suffer in silence, Dáil Éireann has put their struggle on the back burner. Gino Kenny revealed that his own interest in legislating for medicinal cannabis came about when Cork woman Vera Twomey contacted him in relation to her six-year-old daughter, Ava, to highlight the effect that Ireland’s drug policy has on their lives.  

Ava suffers from Dravet’s syndrome, a form of epilepsy which causes her to have severe seizures every day that can last for over an hour at a time. Ava has tried a variety of treatments and pharmaceutical medicines, but none have successfully eased her seizures. Her parents continue to campaign for legalisation of cannabidiol (CBD) products. CBD is one of the major cannabinoids in cannabis, and as a therapeutic treatment it has been found to reduce or eliminate seizures in certain childhood epilepsy disorders, including Dravet’s Syndrome.

After further research Kenny realised that many people throughout Ireland can relate to the struggle that Ava and her family go through daily, and that despite prohibition self-medication is happening on a national and international level to alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other illnesses. Many chronic illness sufferers find that cannabis compounds effectively relieve their symptoms and significantly improve their quality of life as a result. But of course self-medication often brings with it a fear of being criminalised. After hearing Vera Twomey’s story and researching the use of medicinal cannabis around the world, Gino Kenny knew that reform was well overdue.

“We spoke to people from Help Not Harm and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We wanted to focus on the medicinal side of things. The more I read about it the more I’m convinced that recreational and medicinal drug policy are two different debates. There is a big medicinal cannabis industry throughout Canada, Holland, and the U.S. for people who are ill, with epilepsy, chronic pain, and glaucoma, so there’s variants of illnesses that it treats.”

“This Bill is for people who don’t want to be criminalised and want to access medicinal cannabis products. This Bill is to make those products available under certificate, so if a person is diagnosed with a certain illness they can go to the chemist and get these products.”

“Many chronic illness sufferers find that cannabis compounds effectively relieve their symptoms and significantly improve their quality of life as a result.”

Common Concerns

Should we be concerned that people might take advantage of such a system? Mr Kenny does not appear to think so.

download-1“Everything is open to abuse. But the pros far outweigh the cons… If our Bill doesn’t pass there’ll be a future Bill down the road that someone else is going to put forward. Medical cannabis has a future in Ireland and across the world as well, so I think Ireland is behind the times in certain ways. We’ve got to get with the times and embrace this because it is for people who need it and there’s no doubt in my mind that cannabis has a lot of medicinal benefits for various illnesses.”

It is also worth noting that despite Ireland’s prohibition on possession of cannabis for recreational purposes, it is readily available all over Ireland, regardless of whether one is under-age or not. If our worry is that cannabis will be accessible to those who do not use it for medicinal purposes, we should first consider the widespread availability of cannabis under current prohibition law. According to The Global Drug Survey 2015, cannabis was Ireland’s illegal drug of choice.

It is highly unlikely that the passing of Kenny’s Bill would cause a spike in recreational use of cannabis, because people who want it already have access to it, and prohibition has proven to be ineffective in curbing that access. This is the case for a variety of prohibited substances. Prohibition is ineffective in preventing the use and abuse of drugs, and it has detrimental effects on those who are drug-dependent.

In July of this year there was general agreement in the Seanad that alternatives to criminal sanctions should be considered in these cases. Kenny stated that slowly but surely TDs may be taking a new approach: “Some TDs get it, the prohibition approach is simply not working. We have to look at it completely different. The Portuguese model is not perfect. But when you look at the criminals making a lot of money from the drug trade, it’s clear that something’s got to be better than what is in place.” Kenny also pointed to the resources used on police time to prevent drug use, a goal which has largely not been achieved. Illegal or not, drugs are readily available and in demand in Ireland, both inside and outside of prison.

Is there a future for regulation of general cannabis use in Ireland?  “I think looking at the Portuguese model we eventually will get to that stage. Most parts of the world are going on that spectrum. The war on drugs is lost, you can’t win it. You’re better off having a mature debate saying people do take drugs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s completely detrimental to them and absolutely detrimental to their communities, but we have to have a mature conversation in Ireland about liberalisation of drug laws.

“Cannabis should be decriminalised across the field. Hopefully that could be a future debate. But the debate today is medicinal use. The debate now is about trying to get this Bill passed and getting people access to medicinal cannabis products without being criminalised.”

“But of course self-medication often brings with it a fear of being criminalised.”

The Aims of the Bill

logo-no-textPolicy reform organisations Help Not Harm and Students for Sensible Drug Policy Ireland advised TD Kenny on the content of the Bill. Founding member of both organisations, Graham De Barra, advocates a prescription-based model under the Drugs Payment Scheme, which would be subsidised through tax: “The Bill will allow patients access to medicine for free. This approach will ensure high quality cannabis-based medicines available under doctor’s recommendation.”

Regarding consumption of medicinal cannabis products, De Barra says: “There are many forms of cannabis medicine and people need to learn about the benefits of this plant. It’s not only smoked in a joint. I’d love to see it available in a tincture, capsule or rubbing cream.” De Barra maintains that medicinal cannabis patients should not have to rely on the criminal market for their medicine.  

On the 1st of December the Bill will be debated in Dáil Éireann. In the run-up to this, plans are underway in Dublin for a press conference with Help Not Harm on the 28th of November and a protest on the 1st of December – check the Help Not Harm Facebook page for details over the next few weeks. Here in UCC, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy society will be hosting Vera Twomey and other policy reform advocates for a public discussion evening on the 28th of November. Keep an eye on the UCC SSDP Facebook page for further information.

If you would like to show your support for Vera and her daughter, Ava, go to change.org and search ‘Ava Barry’ to sign their petition.