“The system here is basically a mess. People are being criminalised for being caught with joints, or tiny amounts of cannabis, as well as for growing cannabis and possessing it in larger quantities, even if it’s for personal use.” – Nicole, Founder of CCAN, the Cork Cannabis Activist Network.

In light of launching ECAN this week, we have been speaking to advocates in Ireland to gain insight on cannabis reform across the channel. It’s always exciting to hear about progressive reform around the world. As we are all too aware, there are still many nations where cannabis remains illegal, both recreationally and medically. From speaking with CCAN and Natalie O’Regan it’s clear that grassroots advocacy is still at the core of cannabis reform in Ireland. 

As it stands in Ireland cannabis is controlled through The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, and 0% of THC is permitted in any products. Legislation passed in 2019 saw Medical cannabis currently permitted through a pilot scheme. Unlike medical cannabis in the UK, cannabis is not available through private prescription in Ireland. Therefore, accessibility is extremely difficult, and many patients are still unable to legally access the medicinal cannabis products they need.

“Regarding medicinal cannabis, I think that the qualifying illness needs to be expanded, as currently it is extremely limited. This will reflect the leading evidence that medicinal cannabis can improve the quality of life for people who suffer from a rage of illnesses. Further on this point, medicinal cannabis needs to be incorporated in the medical card scheme that will relieve the financial pressure that many patients may have.” – Natalie O’Regan 

Cannabis control in Ireland has a similar framework to America’s ‘Three Strikes’; whereby a custodial sentence is a possible punishment for a third possession offence. Natalie concludes the majority of low level cannabis offences are likely dealt with through non-custodial punishment, i.e. fixed penalty fines. The CSO data for 2019 shows around 70% of drug offences are for personal possession. Natalie states this figure remains fairly stable, but ‘shows that criminalisation of personal possession is thriving in Ireland.’

I constantly have people getting in touch saying they’ve been caught with cannabis and are going to be summoned to court and they are terrified. All of these people are decent, law abiding citizens who have caused no harm and are now facing the very real chance that this conviction will affect them for the rest of their lives. There are people who just want access to a therapeutic plant that can help them improve the quality of their lives.” -Nicole, founder of CCAN 

Cannabis reform in Ireland is happening at a snail’s pace. While Natalie reports some progress with the introduction of a health diversion scheme to address personal possession, she had doubts over its effectiveness in practice. 

“The recent development of extending the Adult Caution Scheme to drug users does not resolve the issue. It will result in those most vulnerable still being excessively criminalised.” -Natalie O’Regan

Despite repeated and fervent calls from CCAN to the government to implement a more progressive approach to cannabis, they told us they are repeatedly met with the same blanket response:

“As previously outlined, the Programme for Government highlights the concern about the prevalence of illegal drug use in Ireland. The Government is committed to a health led approach to dealing with drug misuse to better support individuals, their families and their communities. The use of cannabis and other drugs is of great concern for many reasons, and as such this Government has no plans to legalise cannabis.” – Nicole, Founder of CCAN

We asked CCAN and Natalie O’Regan about the most significant barriers preventing cannabis reform in Ireland.

“The barriers that I can see to reform in Ireland can be based on the lack of appetite both from the government and the judiciary to engage in any conversation regarding reform. I think the general public would welcome an informed debate in the area, and hopefully embrace the evidence to encourage change.”

Ultimately drug reform is a highly contentious issue, for which support from the public is rare. Irish advocates highlight that public discourse around cannabis is entrenched with stigmatising narratives; reinforced by the media, the government, mental health professionals and the Gardai. – Natalie O’Regan

Nicole of CCAN, echoed the Natalie’s sentiment, blaming negative and damaging discourse in Ireland, stating that:

“This criminalisation and stigmatisation of cannabis patients and consumers is perpetuated by our media, our Gardaí, our government and some individuals in the mental health services.” – Nicole founder of CCAN

The stigmatisation of cannabis, and people who use cannabis, is something we cannot escape in drug reform. It is a disease of misinformed discourse which continues to tarnish progressive drug reform and demonise those who use cannabis. 

“Personally, I believe that in the area of harm reduction, the impact of stigma can often be overlooked, and not categorised as a relevant harm… The stigma associated with the criminal label of drug use can often exacerbate the harms of drug use… This stigma leads the public to have negative attitudes towards drug users with research showing that attitudes in Ireland remain largely negative. This results in drug users being outcast and rejected from their community.” –Natalie O’Regan  

Education will undoubtedly play a major role in shaping cannabis reform in Ireland. Natalie believes that much of the fears around cannabis are rooted in widespread problematic use of heroin, which has persisted since the 80’s. Highlighting the need for nuanced discussions with people over their fears of reform. 

“When people think of drugs in Ireland, our minds automatically fall back to the horrifying images of heroin addiction, and the destruction it has caused in communities. Separating cannabis from this narrative is essential to any future reform in the area.”– Natalie 

CCAN believes that Gardai play a significant role in preventing reform by framing the policing of cannabis as meaningful and necessary.

“…bragging on social media about any and all cannabis plant or flower seizures, attaching wild valuations of the plant to make it appear as though they are having a significant impact on crime…” “…by publicising these sensationalist figures, people who aren’t educated on cannabis believe that Gardai are having a significant impact on crime…” – Nicole founder of CCAN

For advocates in Ireland, cannabis reform is an imperative step the government must take to ensure the health led approach they claim to adhere to. 

 

“So many people (myself included) have been dismissed by certain mental health services as simply being a problematic drug user”- Nicole founder of CCAN

O’Regan believes that Ireland, a country that has liberalised a number of laws in recent years including gay marriage and abortion, and has become a beacon of globalisation, will be left behind by neighbouring nations unless reforms are implemented, and fast. She closed our interview with these statements:

“The importance of cannabis reform cannot be underestimated in Ireland. We are slowly falling behind in our efforts, in comparison to the rest of the developed world. For example, the overwhelming acceptance of cannabis reform in the recent US election. All evidence suggests that prohibition and criminalisation does not work, but Ireland is still hanging onto the coattails of the failed war on drugs The latest Irish drug strategy discussed above claims to be a health led approach to drug use, but upon examining the strategy I can see that this claim is not substantiated.” – Natalie O’Regan

This piece was written by Ella Walsh, Content Officer at Volteface. Interviews were conducted with Nicole of the CCAN, and Natalie O’Regan, a drug reform and harm reduction activist.

Natalie Tweets: @NatalieORegan1, CCAN Tweets: @Cork_CAN, Ella Tweets: @snoop_ella

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