Tuesday 25 June 2019

Cannabis could be the next major debate in the new liberal Ireland


Editorial Comment

In the last 25 years the very fabric of Irish culture has undergone a series of profound changes that have reshaped how we live and how we think about ourselves.

This Friday when we go to the polls to decide on the Local and European Election we will also be asked if we want to see further liberalisation of our divorce laws.

While the elections themselves don't appear to have captured the public imagination in any great manner, the reaction to the divorce referendum is perhaps the most fascinating.

The divorce referendum which, if passed, will see the law changed to allow divorces after two years of separation, looks set to pass by a significant margin.

That in itself isn't particularly surprising. What is far more interesting is the lack of interest in the referendum. Put simply, many people don't know or just don't care about it.

It is remarkable given how, back in 1995, the divorce vote was one of the most bitterly contested and close run referendums the country has ever seen.

Things have changed a lot since then. In the intervening years we have legalised same sex marriage and abortion and the influence of the church has been shattered as the country transformed into a progressive, modern nation.

One has to wonder what's next? We face many important issues - from homelessness to the environment to give just two examples - but in terms of future referendums the legalisation of regulation of cannabis is sure to be close to the top of the pile.

Last year Leo Varadkar's Government said it was considering decriminalising possession of small quantities of cannabis. Three countries and several US states have gone further and legalised it entirely.

Just this week major concerns about legalisation were raised by a group of over 25 leading doctors who wrote an open letter voicing the fears about increasing health-related problems from cannabis use. The doctors say they see the risks and harms of cannabis on a day-to-day basis and they fear Ireland is sleepwalking into a liberal cannabis regime.

To be clear, a referendum would not be strictly necessary to legalise cannabis - Dáil approval would be enough - but given the potential impacts on public life and health you would hope the people would be given a say.

Whatever happens, we need an informed debate on the issue.

The doctors' group has valid concerns and they should be addressed. There are certainly benefits to legalising cannabis as have been seen in countries like the Netherlands - including reducing associated crime and bringing in millions in tax revenues - but unquestionably there are risks.

Anyone who claims there are no health risks from cannabis - especially the newer ultra strong strains - need only spend a few hours in an Irish mental health facility to disavow themselves of the notion.

This is not a decision to rush into. It requires a full and reasoned debate.

That will take time and thankfully we have plenty.