At 1.45am, a thunderous roar erupts through the small bright foyer of Omagh Leisure Centre.
It’s the early hours of Friday May 8th 2015 and Deputy Returning Officer Martin Fox has just confirmed what everyone expected. Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty has been returned as West Tyrone MP, by a majority of 10,000 votes.
Standing looking on with a bemused smile is Barry Brown of CISTA (Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol). With just 528 votes, he’s taken only a 1.4% share. But he’s a happy man, he has just realised that his vote is three times that of the Tories, who’ve taken just 169 votes in his native West Tyrone.
The Omagh man knows he’s onto something. More than 500 people in his local area have gone to the ballot box in support of the legalisation of cannabis.
Over the coming hours Brown learned that among the 32 candidates around the UK who stood for CISTA in the General Election, four of the top five were in Northern Ireland and his 528 was right at the top. Not bad considering he hadn’t even heard of the party little more than two months previous.
In actual fact, the reason nobody had really heard of CISTA before February 2015, was simply because the party didn’t exist.
CISTA’s bid for a Royal Commission into the legal status of cannabis could have gone relatively unnoticed as another crackpot political campaign set up on the cusp of a General Election. But the involvement of Bebo co-founder Paul Birch and his considerable assets ensured its official launch grabbed attention.
Strangely enough, it was another Omagh man who helped pave the way for CISTA’s establishment in Northern Ireland. One week after the launch, London based Irishman Shane O’Donnell was on his way home from work when he happened upon one of the many online article’s spawned by the CISTA launch. Very quickly he responded to Paul Birch’s nationwide call for candidates, becoming the Westminster candidate for Holborn and St Pancras in London.
Days later, O’Donnell was himself being interviewed by well-known Northern Irish political blogger Mick Fealty on his website ‘Slugger O’Toole’. Watching the video interview was Barry Brown. Not entirely impressed with how his fellow Omagh man had come across, nonetheless he was clicking his way to the new CISTA website and signing up.
“Shane had already mentioned to Paul Birch about me, because he knew I had stood for the SDLP and he knew that I was a massive consumer of cannabis,” said Brown.
The party of Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, the Social Democratic and Labour Party was Northern Ireland’s biggest party in terms of votes in 1998, but has been in steady decline ever since. Barry Brown had worked alongside the party’s West Tyrone Assembly member and even stood for the local council, but later left, disillusioned with its trajectory.
But now a new party, comprising both his love for politics and cannabis, was opening before him. Paul Birch was soon on the phone.
“The first conversation was, ‘I believe you’re the man to go for this in Northern Ireland’.”
It wasn’t just the conversation with Shane O’Donnell that prompted the call. CISTA’s new website had asked visitors to suggest the areas where it should field candidates and Northern Ireland had sparked the greatest engagement.
CISTA was soon registered and the press coverage followed thick and fast. Three other Northern Ireland candidates would soon materialise. Martin Kelly in Upper Bann, Glenn Donnelly in North Down, and Neil Paine in East Londonderry, a former British soldier who suffers from spina bifida.
Finding suitable candidates proved problematic. “Many more people contacted me about standing, but those who had jobs were afraid of losing it,” said Brown.
“The other side of the scale was people saying ‘I’ve got dreadlocks to my knees, but if you need somebody to stand, I will stand.’”
Achieving the magic number of three candidates guaranteed CISTA a televised party political broadcast in Northern Ireland, a fact that Peter Robinson, the former First Minister and leader of the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party, clearly didn’t appreciate. Robinson labelled the electoral law “ludicrous” and branded the CISTA candidates as “cranks”. The implications of the broadcast ensured widespread media coverage for the fledgling party.
But while CISTA comfortably courted controversy, the coverage exposed perhaps its major stumbling block, being taken seriously.
“The first question I was asked during an interview on BBC Radio Ulster was ‘Is this a joke?’,” recalled Brown
“I pointed out that I took great offence to that. This is very serious to all those people who it matters to. There are awful lot of medicinal consumers and this means life or death to them.”
Some of the mocking smiles would fade one month after the election, when yet another Omagh man broke his silence.
Kieran McCrory was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2014 and given between three and five years to live.
He was lying in a hospital bed during March 2015, when he read Barry Brown’s first interview with his local newspaper, the Ulster Herald.
“He said cannabis users need to stand up and be counted. I remember lying on that hospital bed and thinking, when I get out of here I will stand up and say I want to use medicinal cannabis.”
Over the summer of 2015, assisted by Barry Brown, the 38-year-old founded the Omagh Medicinal Cannabis Support Group. More than anything, the group has brought a sense of maturity to the cannabis debate.
Kieran’s highly publicised use of cannabis oil, which he says has now stopped his tumour growing, not only sparked debate, but it has prompted people to search out similar treatment.
“The interest out there is massive, this is just the beginning,” said Kieran. “I can’t keep up with the messages I get from everywhere. They are from all walks of life, people who just want to hope and I think cannabis oil is providing that hope.”
The legal status of cannabis remains the biggest hurdle. Kieran recalled how an elderly woman, who contacted him in the hope of trying cannabis oil, ended up paying €400 on the black market.
“I want to see this taken off the streets and put into a regulated market.” he said.
Hand-in-hand, CISTA and the Medicinal Support Group have battled for the hearts and minds of local people, taking small yet significant steps. Last month the sister organisations organised Omagh’s first ever public demonstration calling for the legalisation of cannabis.
‘The Big Patient Group Selfie’ involved around three dozen people congregating in the centre of Omagh to be photographed. All those who attended were offered the chance to turn their back on the lens and remain anonymous. Significantly, all faced the camera.
“It’s so strange how West Tyrone is leading the way on the medical and electoral side,” said Barry Brown, now leader of CISTA NI and the party’s only full-time employee in Northern Ireland.
Brown suggests the campaign has already changed attitudes, possibly even among the local authorities. Last year the Omagh area had the smallest number of police cannabis seizure incidents in Northern Ireland.
Back on the election trail in 2016, this time for the Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5th, CISTA has given the Northern Ireland wing of the party the autonomy to develop its own policies.
CISTA NI is now developing policies on the Abortion Act and same sex marriage. Its core policy remains the legalisation of cannabis, albeit a three-tiered licensing model, tailor-made for Northern Ireland.
The party had toyed with fielding up to 16 candidates across Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies. Certainly the interest was there says Brown, but they’ve decided to focus on the four areas the party contested during last year’s Westminster campaign.
In fact, Brown has half an eye on the 2019 local government elections, where he feels CISTA have a better chance of making an electoral breakthrough.
“Once the law does change, that’s not the battle won. I want to see coffee shop dispensaries, and that will be done at a council level,” he said.
“There’s more of a revolution feeling now, there’s awful lot more passionate support. Because people have seen we’re not a flash in the pan.”
Legalisation is no longer a matter of if, but when for CISTA.
“The argument is won. Those opposed to us are on the wrong side of history.”
Ryan McAleer is a Tyrone based journalist for the Ulster Herald. He tweets @RyanMcAleerUH.