THERE’S ONLY ONE strain of cannabis available in Ireland, and it’s called “Do you want it or not?”
In 2019, I gigged Canada and California with my book and podcast. Both places where cannabis is fully legal recreationally. I sauntered into a cannabis dispensary. It was like an off licence back home.
An experienced budtender asked me what I smoked in Ireland? I said, I don’t know, it smells like petrol and gives me panic attacks. They talked me through the dozens of cannabis strains in the shop. Explained the strengths, the effects, the amount of THC and CBD in each variety.
I made an informed, safe, adult, responsible choice. I bought a pre packed joint of “cookie dough” for five dollars and it felt like God was giving me a backrub.
I stared, with a loving familiarity at a billboard of Ryan Gosling for forty minutes on Santa Monica boulevard. I never wanted to smoke “Do you want it or not?” again.
Prohibition doesn’t work
This week the college of psychiatrists of Ireland declared that cannabis was the gravest threat to youth mental health in Ireland. A statement that would encourage any compassionate and thoughtful person to adopt an anti-cannabis position. However, it’s more complex than that. To demonise cannabis is a very simple and sexy narrative that harks back to Reagan era America.
It’s a big dirty bold weed, that conveniently distracts us from two pressing structural threats to youth mental health in Ireland. Those being, a lack of access to mental health services, and the housing/rent crisis. We must view mental health in Ireland in this context. We should view the abuse of any substance in this context also, as substance abuse is often a form of self medication.
First, a disclaimer. Children shouldn’t use or have access to cannabis, or any other mind-altering substance. I’m not here to advocate for the use of cannabis either. If adults want to use cannabis, that’s their business.
Why should you listen to a Limerick person about cannabis? Well, the first person to introduce cannabis to western medicine was a Limerick doctor named William Brooke O Shaughnessy, in the 1830s. It’s an issue that’s very close to our hearts down here.
I’d like to argue for why cannabis should be fully legal and regulated, from a perspective of health and ethics. I’d like to appeal to thoughtful and compassionate adults, who can think critically and aren’t afraid of change.
In Ireland, in 2021, to use or buy cannabis is unsafe and unethical. It’s unsafe and unethical because it’s illegal. Prohibition creates and perpetuates the problems.
I’m aware that cannabis is heavily stigmatised in Ireland. So let’s talk about a more familiar and socially acceptable drug first. Drink. When we partake in a drug like alcohol, we have the agency to make adult choices about what we consume and why.
If I’m wandering around an off licence. I’m making decisions about my health. Do I want a relaxing glass of Malbec with season two of Succession? Do I want a few light cans with 3% alcohol so I don’t have a roaring hangover tomorrow? Do I want a 12% craft beer that I will sip slowly and cautiously? Because alcohol is legal and regulated. I can make confident predictions, and have a degree of control over my safety and behaviour. I can drink responsibly.
What if alcohol was illegal though? Would I be able to drink responsibly? It would be fairly difficult. Because the only alcohol available to me would be high strength Poitin, made in someone’s jocks.
Criminal gangs would control the market. Every time I’d buy a drink from a dealer, I wouldn’t know if the alcohol content was 40% or 90%, or even if the drink was cut with a dangerous substance. Such as the deadly “Jamaican ginger” which drinkers in the US turned to during alcohol prohibition. It contained a neurotoxin that caused users to permanently lose control of their hands and legs. Illegal cannabis in Ireland today, is a bit like this.
‘The pug of the hash world’
Is drink safe because it’s legal? Absolutely not, alcohol abuse is a serious public health problem in Ireland. But at the very least, we can make informed choices, drink responsibly, and know what abuse looks like.
Cannabis users however live under prohibition. The market is controlled and regulated by criminal gangs. We don’t know how strong the weed is, we don’t know if it’s sprayed with chemicals. We can’t use it responsibly.
The Cpsych report stated that “THC levels in cannabis have increased dramatically”. THC is the chemical in cannabis that gets you high. It’s also the chemical that psychiatrists say poses a threat to mental health. But, Cannabis in its natural state, contains a balance of THC and CBD. CBD has been shown to protect the brain from any potentially harmful effects of THC.
Why does today’s cannabis contain such high levels of THC? Well, because it’s illegal. This is what the gangs are growing. Before the millennium, the main form of cannabis available in Ireland was Hash.
Hash looked a bit like turf and smelled like black pudding. It was smuggled in from Morocco. It was the compacted resin of landrace native Moroccan cannabis plants and it contained a natural balance of THC and CBD. It had a mild giggly buzz, with very little anxiety or paranoia.
Then 9/11 happened. The yanks found out that some hash producers in Morocco were funding Jihadists. Hash disappeared. Then, gangs and dealers started to breed their own weed, in massive grow houses, under lights, with hydroponics. Competing with each other for the strongest most psychoactive buzz.
The CBD was bred out, and high strength THC weed prevailed. Think of dogs, think of pugs. A pug would never exist in the wild. Only a human could make a pug. Ya, they look cute, they’re good craic hanging out of a handbag, but the poor pricks can die if they fall on their own faces. High THC weed, is the pug of the hash world.
Because cannabis is illegal. It is potentially unsafe. A legal and regulated environment, like with alcohol, would allow adults to choose cannabis varieties, based on their strength and effects. You could choose the equivalent of a beer, or a wine, or a whiskey. You wouldn’t be forced to drink the mystery jocks poitin. We could exercise responsibility.
Time for common sense?
High THC weed would still exist just like high strength spirits exist. It just wouldn’t be the only option available. This is what a sensible, health-based approach to cannabis looks like. It doesn’t bury its head in the sand, like the prohibition model.
Another, troubling issue with Irish cannabis, is that it’s unethical. Because illegal cannabis in Ireland is controlled by criminal gangs, it is often grown using human exploitation. In 2014, a report by The Migrant Rights Centre found that victims of trafficking and slavery were being sent to Irish prisons for growing cannabis. It stated that these victims made up 75% of Irish convictions for large scale cannabis growing.
These people are smuggled into Ireland from countries like Vietnam and China, they are then forced to work off their journey, in horrendous conditions in Irish cannabis grow houses. When the Gardai raid, it is these victims that are given hefty imprisonments, and no the gangs who are victimising them. This is human rights abuse. One that exists because cannabis is illegal.
So, what would an Irish cannabis user do today, if they wanted to attempt consuming safe and ethical weed? They’d grow it themselves, privately, in their homes. They’d purchase seeds online, from a reputable grower. They’d choose a strain that has a THC/CBD balance. They’d know for certain that a human hasn’t been exploited in the process.
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But there’s a catch. In 2020, Ireland took a milder criminal stance on small amounts of cannabis for personal use, to free up Garda and court time. If you’re caught with a small amount, it will be dealt with informally under the adult caution system. You won’t get a criminal record. However, if you grow a plant for personal use, you risk between 12 months or 14 years in prison.
Therefore. Prohibition pushes cannabis users into the arms of gangs and dealers. Why would you risk prison for growing weed when buying a €50 euro bag from a dealer each week carries no criminal prosecution? The law in Ireland makes cannabis unsafe, unethical and it actively sustains gangs.
Cannabis isn’t going to go away. Let’s follow the example of countries like Canada and states like Colorado. Construct a legal, regulated industry that creates employment, and generates taxes that can be used to fund addiction and mental health services.
Allow adults access to a safe, regulated product, where we have the informed choice to consume responsibly. Take the growing and distribution away from criminal gangs who are engaging in human rights abuses.
Or else we just keep doing what we’re doing. Pretending that prohibition works, and ignoring the problems it’s creating.
Blindboy Boatclub is an artist, author and podcaster. His regular show ‘The Blindboy Podcast’ is available wherever you get your podcasts.