Seán Lynch of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Ireland debates for the legalization of cannabis in Ireland
When cannabis was first criminalized in the 1930s with a wave of racist Refer Madness propaganda, policy was set in place that would supposedly protect society and reduce supply. Let us scrutinize our policy and see how effective it has been in tackling its main objectives as we plan for the years ahead in hope of creating more proactive, cost-effective policy by tackling specific issues relating to crime, drug misuse and addiction.
In 1998 a UN general assembly claimed, ”A drug free world, we can do it” in 10 years. It is as clear as day that the war on drugs has failed. It has failed to protect people who have no interest in the illegal drug trade and it has failed to protect those most vulnerable to participating in the drug trade.
Around the world, we have criminalized millions of low end, small time users to absolutely no avail whatsoever in tackling the serious problems of the drug trade including irresponsible misuse, widespread contamination, addiction, chemical imbalances and crime. These are the fundamentals of drug related problems that prohibition virtually ignores and inadvertently exacerbates. Accidentally, we have fostered the development of hardened criminals, unstoppable black markets, and opened many opportunities for disadvantaged people to fall into a trap of crime and addiction.
If you think this doesn’t affect you, think again. In Ireland, between 2004-2012 a total of 115,584 possessions of drugs for personal use have been recorded. That’s an average of nearly 13,000 cases every year, the majority of which are for cannabis. That’s an average of 35 arrests every day. Think about that the next time your bike or car is stolen or your house is burgled.
Cannabis use is not some accidental temporary world phenomenon that is going to magically go away if we keep throwing money at it. Cannabis use, which has been forced underground and to the fringes of society is completely embedded in our culture and like it or not, it’s here to stay. We have two choices. We keep banging our heads against the wall expecting a different result or take a new approach with more sensible policy tackling more specific issues. It is estimated there are over 100,000 regular cannabis users in Ireland, a figure we will never know unless we address a regulated market, but like all statistics surrounding this anonymous subculture it is probably grossly skewed. What we can assume, is that although some of them commit crimes, as do consumers of alcohol, many of them are otherwise typically decent and non-violent people.
I remember my first time being introduced to cannabis. I was 14, supposed to be doing my Junior Cert but instead had much more allure to hanging out with my peers who would smoke soapbar everyday in the school toilets and in different corners around Ballincollig, Bishopstown and Cork City. I’ve been to 3 different secondary schools and to this day I reckon secondary school was the easiest platform to get (highly contaminated) cannabis in Cork. After all, dealers never ask for ID. When I talk to my younger sister in 4th year, it seems as though little has changed.
Prohibition has been a disastrous public health issue for a number of reasons. In terms of supply, cannabis has undergone generational shifts in contamination to profit in the ignorance of users inexperience. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s soapbar, the lowest quality, most highly contaminated and cheaply produced hash was filled with plastic, chemicals, solvents and dirt to bulk it up and lower its price. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, herbal cannabis in Ireland and the UK has been sprayed with glass, lead, paint and other chemicals, adding weight of up to about 20% to yield larger profits. Does it make sense to continue with this failed approach? Policy ignored these specific issues instead maintaining the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, which had little effect in deterring new users or educating those who already use.
What’s even more frightening is that most commercially grown cannabis in Ireland is produced to maximize THC levels, the main psychoactive ingredient associated with cannabis and psychosis. This is at the expense of counteractive chemicals in the plant such as CBD. It seems that prohibition has inadvertently put those most at-risk to underlying mental illnesses in touch with the most dangerous forms of cannabis by indirectly allowing it to become widely available.
What’s even more frightening are addiction rates. Many Irish cannabis users unnecessarily smoke cannabis when it is mixed with tobacco. Tobacco is highly addictive. When a tobacco mixer turns to pure cannabis, the nicotine effect isn’t there, hindering dopamine, the reward chemical, that exacerbates cravings. Policy could change all of this to provide clean cannabis, with balanced chemical ratios and give users access to vaporizers and encourage safer methods. Addiction rates will fall.
And what do we do with addicts? We lock them up. Behind bars, a lack of treatment or education often manifests in further networking of the drug trade. Imagine someone stuck in the drug trade providing for their family was caught with enough drugs to put them in jail for a long time and had to spend years thinking about what they did wrong, in the company of others who in the exact same boat, with little-to-no employment opportunities when they get out, what do you think will happen? Prohibition is causing a much bigger problem than cannabis use.