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Has Ireland gone to pot?

As the debate over the legalisation of cannabis runs on, Laura Dunne presents the arguments for and against.

Cannabis, or marijuana, comes from the leaves and buds of a plant known as cannabis sativa. It is a non-addictive drug however this does not mean it is without harm. The leaves and buds contain psychoactive compounds that affect the brain when ingested. Although it is usually smoked, cannabis can also be eaten.

In Ireland cannabis remains illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1977 and 1984.

Those found in possession of a substantial amount of cannabis may be fined up to £1,000 or receive a sentence in prison for up to 12 months. The sentence is increased for those with the intention of selling cannabis. However some argue that its time the drug should be make legal and we should follow countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and of course the Netherlands.

When consumed, either through smoking or eating, cannabis releases a chemical known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or simply THC. This chemical travels, via the bloodstream to major organs, affecting mainly the brain. It is this chemical which induces the feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

It is because of these induced feelings that many people support its use for those suffering from painful physical aliments or illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Director of the Student Health Service, Dr Sandra Tighe explains, “it does appear to be useful in some patients with MS as a painkiller and better than what is currently available.” This is one of the reasons Legalise Cannabis Ireland (LCI) want the drug made legal.

A spokesperson for LCI, David Howlett says that although members of the organisation have come together under different circumstances they are all there for the same reason; “putting their own personal agendas aside and looking at the bigger aspect, which is to try and legalise cannabis and try and give it to the people that genuinely need it.”

Howlett says the group’s main aim is to educate the public on cannabis and all its functions so as to move away from the stereotypical image of cannabis as a drug used solely to get ‘stoned’. “If the Government was to give the public a proper education [regarding the drug] this image would change,” Howlett explains. This, he believes, would give “people the freedom of choice and the education to understand the use, not the abuse of drugs.”

Although cannabis can be helpful to those suffering from health problems, in large amounts it can cause memory loss and paranoia, and in the long term it can cause cancer and major respiratory problems. Dr Tighe listed the numerous negative effects on ones health.

“Many people believe that cannabis is a gateway drug and if it is made legal people become exposed to more harmful drugs”

“First, there is the effect of how it is used, smoked and the ill effects of that. Second, it has a negative effect on motivation and people are slowed down on it. Third, it can trigger a psychosis in some vulnerable individuals.”

Dr Tighe went on to explain how the use of cannabis has been known to cause depression in some cases and although it is unknown how lasting the effects are, it can effect a person’s memory and learning capacity, especially in younger users of the drug.

Whether or not the legalisation of cannabis would run the risk of encouraging more people to use it and perhaps, move on to addictive and more harmful drugs, is still a question that needs to be addressed.

Many people believe that cannabis is a gateway drug and if it is made legal people will as a result become exposed to more harmful drugs. David Howlett of LCI completely disagrees with this argument. Howlett believes that contrary to this opinion, keeping cannabis illegal is where the threat lies. He states that while cannabis remains illegal the drug is “put into the same hands as people that deal other drugs.” In his opinion, this presents a much bigger problem than any issue resulting from legalising the drug.

Many medical professionals, including Dr Tighe, believe that the legalisation of cannabis will only make the drug more legitimate and, as a result, its usage will increase.

A question that also needs to be asked is whether Ireland is being hypocritical in not legalising cannabis, considering that we are nation known for our consumption, and often abuse, of alcohol. It is a known fact that there still remains no reported case of death owing to a direct overdose of cannabis while alcohol related deaths take their toll every year.

While smoking cannabis is known to be more harmful than eating the drug, and can cause mouth and lung related aliments, they appear to pose a far lesser threat than the negative effects of alcohol, both on a person’s health and on society. With regard to this, Dr Tighe explains how it took some years before the negative effects of alcohol on society became apparent.

The main argument for the legalisation of cannabis appears to be the freedom of choice. Is it unfair to criminalise a drug that in some cases appears less harmful than alcohol or is it a necessary action to prevent the spread and increase of harder drugs being used in Irish society? It would appear that the British government believes the latter as they recently moved cannabis from a class C back up to a class B drug. Is this something that many students would agree with?

When asked whether they supported the legalisation of cannabis, UCD students had varying opinions. One final year student was of the opinion that while cannabis remains illegal there is the chance that more people will be drawn to do it.

She explained “as it is illegal people might want it more, like the whole forbidden fruit idea, so if it was legalised there may be less of a want for it”. She was, however, in support of the drug for its medicinal purposes rather than for recreational uses, as she was aware of the negative effects of cannabis such as the threat of psychosis.

While it is uncertain what will happen in the future, it seems unlikely that cannabis will be make legal for medical purposes, or for personal use. Whether this is justifiable or not still remains an issue that is hotly debated.

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