Saturday 20 July 2019

'Free for all' - The week cannabis was 'legal' in Ireland

Everyone remembers when a legal loophole made ecstasy, magic mushrooms and head shop drugs 'legal' for 24 hours in 2015 but another legal ruling made cannabis 'legal' for an entire week in 1974.


Sean Nolan

Everyone remembers when a legal loophole made ecstasy, magic mushrooms and head shop drugs 'legal' for 24 hours in 2015.

But another legal ruling effectively put cannabis use outside the reach of the law for an entire week in 1974, a situation described at the time by one TD as providing 'a field day for the pushers' while it was also reported that people were openly smoking cannabis in at least one Dublin pub after the ruling.

Cannabis first fell under the sights of global legislators at the International Opium Convention, held in The Hague in 1925.

That body first met in China in 1909 to control the burgeoning opium trade but by 1925 it had become more interested in prohibition, in line with the US, which had banned alcohol just five years before.

The 1925 International Opium Convention declared that 'Indian hemp' or cannabis, was only authorised for medical and scientific purposes and various countries slowly fell into line with this decree.

In Ireland, it was the 1934 Dangerous Drugs Act that prohibited cannabis in Ireland for the first time.

The extensive bill was little used for cannabis until the mid 1960s and even then convictions for possession were very low in Ireland.

Only one person was convicted of cannabis possession in 1966 and nobody was convicted in 1967, suggesting the 'Summer of Love' wave didn't hit Irish shores.

During a 1968 court case a garda said that cannabis was now being 'passed around rather openly' on O'Connell Street in Dublin and other city centre premises but conviction rates remained very low, with just 42 people convicted of cannabis offences in 1970.

However, an appeal against a cannabis possession conviction, held in Dublin's Circuit Criminal Court on February 28, 1974, saw Ireland become a 'free for all' for users according to a report in the Irish Independent.

A 'loophole' in the 1934 Act was discovered by an enterprising barrister by the name of Robert P Humphries.

He argued that the 1934 only mentioned female cannabis plants and their derivatives as it had been thought at the time that only the female plant contained the active ingredient, something later found to be incorrect.

During the appeal Mr Humphries asked the State to prove that the cannabis the defendants had in their possession came from female plants. The State could not so the appeal was upheld.

The Irish Independent, reporting on the ruling next day, under the headline "Loophole 'allows' cannabis" noted that "Last night, cannabis resin was being openly smoked in at least one Dublin licensed premises after the judgement became known."

Cases against 16 people facing possession charges before the courts were adjourned while the matter was dealt with and Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East, Fergus O'Brien had a dire warning for the Minister for Health.

He told the Sunday Independent on March 3, 1974: "This loophole will provide a field day for the pushers if something is not done fast".

A spokesperson for the Dublin drugs squad told the same paper that they could prosecute someone for smoking cannabis resin but the chances of convictions are slim as nobody could prove whether the resin had come from male or female plants.

In the Dail on March 6, 1974 the then Minister for Health Brendan Corish was asked by Fine Gael TD Hugh Byrne "if in view of the national concern about the possibility of the widespread increase in drug taking due to the defect in the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1934, relating to cannabis, as recently held by the Central Criminal Court, he will take immediate action to prevent the spread of drug taking."

Minister Corish said he was "considering steps to remedy the situation"

Tanaiste Brendan Corish, left, and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave pictured in 1976
Tanaiste Brendan Corish, left, and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave pictured in 1976

A subsequent quip, from Fianna Fail TD Noel Lemass, asked: "Could the Minister give us any details of the sex life of the male and female plants?"

Minister Corish replied: "The Deputy would probably do a better job than I on that.

Minister Corish then announced new measures to close the loophole on March 7, 1974, ending what the Irish Independent called a 'free for all' for cannabis users.

The regulations added the substance 'cannabinol and certain of its derivatives' to a 1970 Controlled Substances Act, ending the brief 'legality' of cannabis.

In a strange postscript, exactly one week after the new regulations were enacted, gardai seized one of its largest quantities of cannabis resin up to that time at Dublin Airport, a figure valued at £20,000.

According to reporting in the Evening Herald on March 14, 1974, the drugs had been due to arrive in Dublin right in the middle of the 'legal' period but the suitcase containing the drugs were held up in London for a week by a strike.

When it eventually arrived in Dublin it sat in unclaimed luggage for three days until a customs official checked it and discovered the haul.

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