The Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme and the Case for Cannabis Legalisation in Ireland

Simon Dobey speaks to politicians and on-the-ground activists about the movement to legalise cannabis in Ireland

The Medicinal Cannabis Access Programme is now a part of the HSE, however some activists have been critical. Amongst them is Gino Kenny, a People Before Profit TD who has been actively involved in highlighting the issue since entering Dáil Éireann. In an interview with The University Observer Kenny claimed that the parameters set out under the scheme are too narrow and that the legislation should be extended to include those suffering with 'chronic pain'. This would allow for a broader interpretation by medical practitioners. In its current form, the medicinal cannabis can only be prescribed for treatment in three circumstances: cases of spasticity caused by Multiple Sclerosis, intractable nausea caused by chemotherapy and treatment-resistant epilepsy. During an interview with The University Observer, Natalie O’Regan, a University of Limerick law graduate and drug law reform activist agreed with Kenny that the parameters were too narrow. O’Regan also stated that in many cases cannabis could only be prescribed as a treatment as an absolute last resort. Additionally, she stated that those who have been deemed eligible to avail of cannabis under the scheme have been left to their own devices in regards to sourcing their medication. This has involved expensive round trips to The Netherlands.

Many of those who cannot avail of the scheme have been forced to seek out other alternatives by purchasing cannabis via the unregulated black market. One of those is Ruairí*, who sources cannabis for his father with stage four oral cancer. He asserts that cannabis has resulted in “pain relief, better sleep, and an improved appetite which has benefits for his father's overall mental health”. Ruairí is living in constant fear of law enforcement. The pandemic and the increased presence of Garda checkpoints has added an extra layer of complexity in transporting cannabis for his father. He added that the rollout of the medicinal cannabis access programme has been far too slow and that the programme itself is unfit for purpose.

Stephen*, who lives in County Dublin, has suffered from Crohn's disease since being diagnosed at the age of nine. For him cannabis offers an effective fast-acting pain relief from intense cramping and stomach pain. He doesn’t use cannabis as a substitute for any of his other prescribed medication but purely to relieve symptoms and to improve his appetite. Stephen told The University Observer that he would prefer to have a safe and reliable access to cannabis which was less potent (higher in CBD content and lower in THC content) to alleviate pain during his sporadic bouts of illness which can last several months at a time.

Businesses selling cannabis with a high CBD content and a THC content below 0.2% have begun to spring up across Ireland. This has been possible due to a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in November of 2020. The case which was referred to the ECJ by the court of appeal in the Aix-en Provence in France deemed CBD oils used in electronic cigarettes as non-narcotic and therefore covered by the free movement of goods. This meant that no national government could restrict their sale.

Last week the independent vegan cafe, Little Collins, which sells CBD and hemp products was raided by Gardaí and their product seized at their store in Kilkenny. Gardaí also raided the home of the cafe owner, James O’Brien, during the week. James then-pregnant wife subsequently miscarried. Gardaí told the owner the product was being seized under the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1977. When asked about the seizure, Gino Kenny TD admitted that there is somewhat of a legal grey area in regards to the sale of CBD in plant form. The ECJ ruling specifically related to oils for E-cigarettes. The owner of the cafe is currently taking a legal challenge to the High Court in relation to previous charges stemming from the sale of plant-based hemp products with a THC content below 0.2

Gardaí also raided the home of the cafe owner, James O’Brien, during the week. James then-pregnant wife subsequently miscarried.

Natalie O’Regan and Nicole Lonergan of the Cork Cannabis Activist Network spoke with palpable horror and indignation in regards to the raids. They believe it will be “the straw that broke the camel's back” in mobilising calls for legalisation and drug reform. They consider the targeting of this small business as reprehensible, citing the presence of organised crime gangs who sell far more potent cannabis products in the unregulated market. The raids coincided with an Irish based company Jazz Pharmaceuticals purchase of GW Pharmaceuticals in a deal worth seven billion euro. GW pharmaceuticals lead product is Epidolex, a cannabidiol based oral solution which is used to treat rare forms of epilepsy. They asserted that not only were the raids hypocritical but highlighted a malicious effort to deliver the sale of cannabis to big business at the expense of the small.

Frank Feighan, the Minister of State responsible for the national drugs strategy declined to be interviewed. However, he issued a statement which stated that decriminalisation of cannabis was not a workable strategy, owing to the fact that it might lead to de-facto legislation. The statement went on to assert that the government was pursuing a health-based approach to drug use. Kenny, Natalie and Nicole all argued that a health-based approach was impossible without legalisation. They claimed that in its current form the unregulated market produces far more harmful cannabis, sprayed with various dangerous and addictive substances like fentanyl and PCP. Natalie and Nicole also underscored how the criminalisation of recreational users contributes to negative perceptions of law enforcement and results in criminal records which can seriously impede career opportunities.

Speaking to The University Observer, Kenny said that he plans to bring forward a bill during this year proposing the legalisation of cannabis. In his perspective legalisation would cut off a key source of funding for criminal gangs operating throughout the country while ensuring that people had the ability to make informed decisions in regards to consumption. Kenny said that the bill would be similar to the bill proposed by Luke Ming Flanagan back in 2013 which received only eight votes in favour. He was not overly optimistic about the prospects for success this time around.

*Names have been changed