Thursday 25 April 2019

It's time to take cannabis supply out of the hands of criminals

The case of Billy Caldwell strengthens the argument for legalising and regulating cannabis use, writes Eoin O'Malley

BATTLE: Charlotte Caldwell, mum of epilepsy sufferer Billy
BATTLE: Charlotte Caldwell, mum of epilepsy sufferer Billy

When a Tyrone boy had his medicinal cannabis confiscated at Heathrow Airport recently, there were howls of outrage. Billy Caldwell suffers from a severe form of epilepsy, and although he'd gone nearly a year without a seizure, he'd had five seizures in less than a week after being denied the cannabis oil he uses to treat the condition.

Some sense prevailed last week and his medicine was returned to Billy's mum, Charlotte, with a licence to use medicinal cannabis. Here, Simon Harris told the Dail he's considering extending access to medicinal cannabis for patients. It is not before time. It's nearly two centuries since Limerickman William O'Shaughnessy introduced cannabis for medicinal purposes to Europe. It helps with chronic pain, reduces nausea for people receiving chemotherapy, and eases muscle spasms.

In its medicinal form, cannabis doesn't normally give the high that recreational users enjoy. And accompanying the suggestion that the rules for medicinal cannabis might be relaxed came the stark warning that taking cannabis for fun still won't be tolerated.

There are good reasons for such an approach. Cannabis is associated with a lot of damage to people. It is linked with brain damage including schizophrenia. It makes regular users less alert and in many studies there is evidence that it stops brain development. It can waste people's lives. Cannabis is called dope for a reason.

And there's some evidence that cannabis is getting more dangerous. Skunk is a stronger form, with more of the active ingredient that causes hallucinations, and, in the longer term, brain damage.

But still lots of people use cannabis. More than a quarter of Irish people have used it in their lifetime. Most of us, like former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, just try it in college and then stop using. But there are estimated to be more than 4pc of adults who use it regularly. That's a significant rise in the past 10 years. The survey result accords with what many of us probably noticed. It's somehow become normal to walk around the streets smoking a joint.

The rise in use and increased potency of cannabis could be met with a few reactions. One will be to redouble the efforts to stop criminal gangs importing it or growing it here, and to clamp down on use. That would be the wrong reaction.

The ''war on drugs'' that Ronald Reagan declared in the 1980s has been a spectacular failure. In the US, it has just filled prisons; in Mexico, it fills the morgues. In Ireland, it fills the courts. Three-quarters of the 15,000 or so drug law offences are for possession, usually for personal use.

A bill in the Seanad makes the case for decriminalising cannabis and other illegal drug possession for personal use. It will treat drug-related offences as a health issue rather than a criminal one. When it is not treated as a crime then problem users might feel more comfortable in seeking medical help. As part of this there would be a dissuasion service that would seek to move people away from drug use without criminal penalties.

The experience of Portugal, which decriminalised most drug use in 2001, suggests this is a good idea. Cannabis doesn't cause death, but the number of drug-related deaths due to harder drugs has fallen dramatically in Portugal. Drug use has also fallen, so decriminalisation hasn't encouraged more people to take drugs.

It is one thing decriminalising drugs for personal use. It is another to legalise some drugs. Some campaigners are worried that legalising will lead to drug tourism or an increased willingness to try drugs, and inevitably to addiction. Those fears are reasonable, but misplaced.

Again we have other places to look to. Colorado legalised cannabis in 2014, and while this is too recent to draw firm conclusions, there doesn't appear to have been a rise in drug use or drug-related health issues.

The evidence on crime is mixed. There's been a rise in crime there, even when controlling for the population rise. But the crime rise has been across the board, even in crimes that are unlikely to be associated with drug use. Gang crime is down.

The Kinahan-Hutch feud that has caused many deaths is a direct result of our policy approach. As we discovered with alcohol when the US tried to ban it, prohibiting the supply of goods we don't like doesn't work.

The criminal gangs that cause so much havoc will always step in to supply the drugs where there is demand. We want gardai to get better at stopping them, and they have been. There are many more drug seizures now, most of which is cannabis. But when the gardai get better, so do the drug gangs.

Leaving it to the Kinahans to supply cannabis means we get skunk, and other more dangerous forms of cannabis, becoming available. Legalising means we can regulate what goes into the drug. Leaving it to the Kinahans means teens get access to drugs. Dealers don't ask for ID.

Legalising means we can regulate who takes it. It allows the State to see if there are problem drug users who need help. Leaving it to the Kinahans to supply drugs means working-class kids get drawn into crime and violence, while the crime bosses get rich. If the State legalises and regulates it, the State takes the money and we cut off the Kinahans at the knees.

The big fear is a rise in addiction. Addiction is a possibility with any drug. But if we look at alcohol consumption in Ireland we see that the use of that legalised drug is going down, and is sharply down for teenagers and young adults.

Most people enjoy using alcohol and use it responsibly. That has happened through legalisation and regulation. It could happen with cannabis as well.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is the director of MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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