April 20th, as we all know, is a day celebrated by brain-rotted losers with questionable politics, but can we all just ignore Hitler’s birthday and celebrate International Cannabis Day instead? Yes, April 20th – the 20th day of the 4th month – is observed as the international day to celebrate cannabis and promote its legalisation. But why mark a day for it at all? And what is the case for legalising it?
One might well ask how this could be considered a priority during an era of so many pressing issues. It could look trivial compared to the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment for instance. There hasn’t even been a government formed in the eight weeks since the last election. But an issue does not need to be a matter of life-and-death for effective policy change to be worthwhile. However, the thing about cannabis is that for some people it is a matter of life-and-death.
The medicinal benefits of cannabis have been explored since its introduction to Western medicine by Irish doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. In some circumstances, cannabis can be effective in treating glaucoma, PTSD and chronic pain, and in restoring appetite to chemotherapy patients. If more jurisdictions legalised cannabis, there would be broader population samples with which to research its impact. The longer its use is driven underground, the less will be understood of its promising medical benefits. Already there are hundreds of people in Ireland who depend on cannabis as the most effective treatment for their ailment.[pullquote]Already there are hundreds of people in Ireland who depend on cannabis as the most effective treatment for their ailment.[/pullquote]
The harsh penalties for possession of cannabis can also distress those criminalised. Law enforcement resources are diverted to the seizure of drugs. Then the criminal justice system has to process drug offences. Prisons end up paying for the housing of an offender whose crime was ingesting chemicals into their own body. A criminal record subsequently limits opportunities for that person in work and travel through the stigma they face. This is an altogether wastefully excessive response and particularly cruel towards an addict.
Treating drug addiction through the public health system rather than the criminal justice system is a possibility that was mooted by the last government. Seeing a positive policy impact from Portugal’s initiative to decriminalise the use of drugs, Minister for State Aodhán Ó Ríordain committed to applying this approach to Ireland. Unfortunately, he lost his Dáil seat in this year’s election even though he was arguably the only Labour TD who deserved to keep his seat. With the shreds of Labour’s credibility torn into even tinier shreds, perhaps it is other parties that should be carrying on promoting reform in this area.
However, although a policy of decriminalisation would be an enlightened step in the right direction, it is distinct from legalisation, as it decriminalises the users of drugs without granting legal status to the drugs themselves. Devoting resources to criminalising drugs does not wipe out drug use, as seen when Ireland was declared the biggest consumer of psychoactive drugs in Europe by the 2016 EU Drug Markets Report.[pullquote]A criminal record subsequently limits opportunities for that person in work and travel through the stigma they face. This is an altogether wastefully excessive response and particularly cruel towards an addict.[/pullquote]
Since the criminals handling these drugs operate outside of a regulatory framework, there are public health concerns about their purity and chemical treatment, and the unintended side-effects they may have for users. And all the profits that could be going towards a regulated industry that’s responsible to its consumers and taxed by its government? They go to organised crime instead.
Aside from this increasingly grizzly picture, it is simply an idiotic double-standard to legalise alcohol and not cannabis. Everyone from Bill Hicks to your mother can point out the difference between these drugs. Whereas cannabis typically has a mellowing effect and fewer health consequences than most other drugs, alcohol is a leading factor in long-term health problems, car accidents and domestic abuse. The social licence for alcohol is completely arbitrary and implicitly entails tolerance for the millions of lives it destroys while the drinks industry makes huge profits – just like the tobacco industry but eviler.
There are those who use this very argument as a reason not to legalise cannabis, lest these social ills are replicated by even the slightest degree. There are also those, such as Aodhán Ó Ríordain, who feel that cannabis is not as harmless as its advocates make it out to be and therefore we shouldn’t legalise it. To these people I ask, why then do you not campaign for the prohibition of alcohol? Just like in the 1920s when it didn’t work then either?[pullquote]Whereas cannabis typically has a mellowing effect and fewer health consequences than most other drugs, alcohol is a leading factor in long-term health problems, car accidents and domestic abuse.[/pullquote]
What if instead of a hypocritical approach that lets criminal organisations control the drug supply, we undermine them while providing Ireland economic benefits through enterprise, tourism and tax revenue? It would after all be a sign that we’re an open nation committed to sensible policy. We might even move away from our social life’s over-emphasis on drink by providing people with a safer alternative.
So how could we actually achieve this in Ireland? There has already been legislation introduced to the Dáil by Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, but as you might have suspected he was practically laughed down after submitting his fairly thoughtful Bill. Given Ireland’s tendencies towards conservatism, it could be a long time before legalising weed becomes an acceptable notion with political momentum.
On the other hand, we could have said the same thing about same-sex marriage just a few short years ago. The first state among the recent slew of American states to legalise cannabis was Colorado, a relatively conservative one. As America’s west coast progresses this policy, other states look set to follow, as do other countries throughout the world including Canada.
Perhaps by learning from places where legalisation was successful, we can think strategically about how to get it on the Irish agenda without it appearing frivolous when that agenda is already so crowded. Emphasising that this will tackle part of our problems with the health, prison, police and legal services will appeal to those concerned with government waste.[pullquote]We could be looking at a long time before legalising weed becomes an acceptable notion with political momentum. On the other hand, we could have said the same thing about same-sex marriage just a few short years ago.[/pullquote]
The plight of those who have a legitimate medical need for cannabis should also resonate, as they come from much broader backgrounds than stereotypical potheads. This will also highlight yet another shortcoming in our much-reviled and dysfunctional health system. There may even be those who hold recreational stoners in such disdain that the idea of taxing them for their indulgence is satisfying on some level.
Seeing weed as an additional source of tax revenue was highlighted by an ad from Colorado’s legalisation campaign which tactfully argued that if money is being spent on dope anyway, is it not better going towards the under-funded education system rather than criminals? Another ad released in Colorado by the Yes on Amendment 64 campaign framed a young woman explaining to her mother why ganja could be considered a responsible alternative to alcohol.
[pullquote]If money is being spent on dope anyway, is it not better going towards the under-funded education system rather than criminals?[/pullquote]
It’s not just avoiding alcohol’s long-term health problems and short-term problems like hangovers that makes the Halfling’s Leaf more appealing. If people feel “safer around marijuana users” that’s yet another social issue being addressed in part by legalisation. Any campaign here should respond to fears over an expansion of Ireland’s deep-seated alcohol problems by saying that pot can be part of the solution.
This is a civil rights issue but it’s also an issue of social solidarity. There is a rightful place on the agenda of this next Dáil for the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs like cannabis. With enough thought put into it, it may even be one of the things we end up getting right.