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High Time We Decriminalize Cannabis?

High Time We Decriminalize Cannabis?
Patrick Ryan looks at other countries’ experiences with drug control and decriminalization.
The recent report from the Citizens’ Assembly on drugs use which recommends replacing criminal charges with a health-led approach based on the Portuguese model, and expuginging criminal records for past personal use, raises some interesting questions.  Public demand for cannabis is increasingly seen as a normal, as the strong smell of weed wafting along the street in any city in the country shows. While the use of cigarettes has become socially unacceptable consumption of cannabis has risen, and is now seen by many as a harmless, if pungent, passtime to which the gardaí usually turn a blind eye. However importing, growing and selling the drug is treated very differently, and seizures of large quantites mostly in herbal form but also cannabis resin (hash) and edibles (typically gummy gellies in packaging closely remembling real sweets) by our police and customs make headlines on a daily basis.
Politicians across most parties in the Dáil and Seanad have spoken in favour of decriminalization while others remain strongly opposed. As far back as 2015 the coalition government discussed plans for a law which would allow users to sell small quantities of recreational drugs to friends without risk of arrest, an initiative shelved by the 2016 general election. Since 2001 in Portugal Article 30/2000 decriminalised small quantities of all narcotics and psychotropic drugs, from marijuana and amphetamines through to Class A substances like cocaine and heroin, allowing users to posses 10 days’ worth for personal use. Supervised ‘shootup centres’ with doctors and nurses present to providing health services, were also opened as part of a hugely expensive programme which has won much praise internationally.
Though THC, the psychotropic element in cannabis, is still illegal for retail CBD products are now openly sold in shops and psychedelic drugs are often used in social settings yet decriminalisation remains controversial nonetheless. The Guardian newspaper reported recent government statistics showIing three-quarters of the Portuguese population see drug use, which has increased from just under 8 percent to almost 13 percent in the last two decades, as a problem in spite of consumption of all drugs there falling below European averages.
The country still takes a hard line in trafficking however, and hefty prison sentences are likely if you are caught moving or selling more than a few grams of any drug. João Goulão, head of the country’s national institute on drug use won priase as the architect of Portugal’s decriminalization model, but now says expensive continued funding is crucial and “what we have today no longer serves as an example to anyone” following cutbacks, and outsourcing.
What of other countries’ experience?
Germany recently moved to decriminalise personal use in limited quantities, a decision hailed by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach in a post on X. “This is better for real addiction help, prevention for children and young people and for combating the black market, for which there will soon be an alternative.”
Political realities impact national policies however, and the growth in popularity for centerist and centre-right parties who generally oppose decriminalisation may threaten programmes dependent on high public spending. Attempts to become “more like Portugal” is not always the slam dunk advocates predict. Norway’s efforts to mimic that programme collapsed in 2021 following a change in policy not by right-wingers but a policy change by the Labour Party.
Holland, specficially Amsterdam, has allowed the consumption of weed in cannabis coffeehouses since the mid-70s in an attempt to seperate the product from harder drugs, though all weed is still produced illegally. In 2011 and in spite of an estimated €400m raised in taxes the Dutch government, tired of drug tourism, announced plans for strict new laws limiting THC to a maximum of 15 percent, above which the green in coffeeshops would be treated as Class A narcotics, alongside substances like cocaine, resulting in about 80 percent of products being taken off the shelves and complaints from businesses that (as in the USA) they couldn’t compete with illicit street prices.
In America marijuana use and possession remains illegal under federal law, but about three-quarters of the country’s 50 states have decriminalised the drug for medical or recreational purposes. 79 percent of Americans live in a county with at least one marijuana dispensary, yet demand for street weed is higher than Shaggy in a Scooby Do reboot. Modern cannabis is all forms is generally far stronger than the cannabis of the Woodstock era, particularly very pungent skunk, and strains boasting over 90% THC are now available in dispensaries. 20 years ago DEA seizures in the USA had THC levels of about 4%, but by 2017 this had increased to 17% on average, in line with stats here, and the UK where 94% of 995 seizures tested in a sample that year were high potency marijuana.
In 2022 the LA Times concluded that despite legal options illicit growers still outnumbered their licensed counterparts by 10 to 1, based on satellite imagery. Environment impact is also huge – another US report that year suggests that indoor cannabis cultivation results in carbon dioxide emissions similar to adding 3.3 million cars to the roads.
Thailand made headlines when it became the first country in South-East Asia to decriminalise the cultivation and sale of cannabis but within a year some 20,000 outlets were selling products to all age groups, including the young and underage smokers, prompting an about turn as the drug was recriminalized. Lighting up a blunt now risks incurring a fine equating to €1,500, while growers can be fined about €8,000 and face imprisonment for 3 years. “We don’t want any more weed. We’re done with it… Pheu Thai is for medicinal marijuana, not recreational,” declares Prasert Chanruangthong, the secretary-general of the party which originally brought in decriminalisation. Few western investers agree with Phew Thai, however.
A recent report on Forbes website quoted a leading cannabis data provider BDSA forecasting that the market for legal cannabis could be worth US$55 billion by 2027, and sales outside USA and Canada are expected to reach US$6.3 billion by then. Ireland is seen as the perfect gateway to the lucrative European market by several heavyweights including the $5.4 billion Cronos Group, a giant in the recreational cannabis market, which set up Cronos Group Celtic Holdings in Dublin eight years ago.
Such targetting worries outspoken critics of decriminalisation such as Professor Bobby Smyth from the Department of Public Health & Primary Care in TCD. A consultant psychiatrist, he’s led youth addiction services in Dublin since 2003 and warns that some organisations sponsored by the industry are actively trying to influence government policy by supporting campaigns aimed at softening public attitudes.
“Over 40,000 adults are addicted to cannabis in Ireland, which is twice as many people as were addicted to heroin at the peak of the heroin epidemic in the 1990s,” Smyth told in a 2019 interview. “Compare the policy response, compare the furore at the time around heroin, which was very appropriate, versus the complete shrug of the shoulders response to cannabis.”
The bad effects on teens from open trade of synthetic drugs in head shops in the early Noughties, and our long and problematic relationship with alcohol should be a reminder than when it comes to regulating addictive substances Ireland needs to be cautious. Could drug legalisation repeal simply make indulgence more socially accepted for our middle-class, while in working-class communties the status quo remains? Weed produced in growhouses using tapped electricity through dangerous overloaded circuits, sold on tic, along with the violence which follows unpaid drug debt and bloody battles between suppliers of “50-bags” over turf, plaguing communties where kids begin smoking cannabis at 12 or 13, and early every morning?
There’s little doubt that once high finance is involved in getting the public high ethical and societal considerations take a backseat to balance sheets and bottom lines. In the USA Big Tobacco knew as early as the 1940s about the deadly dangers of cigarette smoking, and initially the public did too with the likes of the Miami Herald and the Reader’s Digest, reporting that research on cancer in lab rats indicated that that anyone smoking those Camels and Marlboros was risking their lives. The threat to thousands of tobacco growers in the south and manufacturers nationwide was clear. The response? Even more money went not only just into advertising, but sponsoring popular radio shows like NBC’s Dragnet, broadcast to tens of millions nationwide, heavily promoting smoking by the characters, and in ad breaks. Family doctors across America inexplicably refused to accept the science and speak out against tobacco, with some even appearing in adverts claiming smoking improved lungpower.
The link between early cannabis use in youth and serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is now accepted in psychiatry, and about one in five taking it gegularly will become problem users. Unpredictable events like Covid-19 also play a part: many smokers report that strains inreased sigficantly, along with demand, during lockdown and remain at that level. Whether physical risks also exist remain to be seen.
With billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake can we expect a candid response, or a Phillip Morris-style payoff and a coverup worthy of a Philip Marlowe storyline?
Many of the same companies who historically invested in tobacco have switched attention to cannabis, and a recent article on the Yale University School of Medicine website says that combatting the risks will need scientists to work together to produce evidence that marijuana is not as harmless as claimed.
Dr Deepak Cyril Dsouza, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who is an expert in schizophrenia, runs Yale’s Center for the Science of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. He echoes much of the concern raised by Professor Smyth here, and he too has little faith in CEOs’ ability to protect us.
“I will leave you with this question. Is it going to take us another 50 years to recognize the consequences, as it took us with tobacco?”

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