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An open Letter to The Irish Minister for Health

Legal roadblocks preventing my escape from illness

August 19, 2015
Colm Sides

Dear Leo Varadkar,

Can you please respond to the last email that I sent to you. Our correspondence to date is below (not including my first letter that I sent to you). I took a lot of time to respond to your letter and the concerns raised therein and I would appreciate if you could write back to me.

Your Letter:
cannabis healthDear Colm,

The Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, T.D., has asked me to thank you for your recent letter concerning Cannabis. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977 as amended and the regulations made thereunder, the manufacture, production, preparation, sale, supply, distribution and possession of cannabis is unlawful except for the purposes of research. Cannabis is controlled internationally under United Nations Conventions. It is not the intention of Government to legalise the use of herbal cannabis, owing to a number of concerns, including its potential for abuse and concern for public health. Cannabis misuse is detrimental to health and significant physical and mental health risks are particularly associated with long-term use. Legalising cannabis may lead to increased levels of experimentation with drugs by young people. The legalisation of cannabis in Ireland cannot be considered in isolation of the other EU Member States as this could result in Ireland becoming a destination for “drug tourism” with consequential social problems. It is internationally recognised that leniency in cannabis control can endanger the overall international effort against drugs.

The Government’s position regarding controls on cannabis is in line with United Nations Conventions and international law on the control of cannabis. We are concerned that this seems to be a time of crisis in your life and would urge you to seek help from your GP to discuss how you are feeling. Alternatively, there are a lot of services that can offer support right now – their number are listed below: Samaritans offer a listening service and can be contacted by phone or email: Samaritans 116 126 (freephone) Pieta House offer a counselling service for people who are having thoughts of suicide. They centres in Dublin, Limerick and Cork Pieta House 01 601 0000 Website www.pieta.iePieta House – Cork Office Highfield Lawn, Model Farm Road Bishopstown Cork Phone: 021-4341400 Aware is a national organisation for people with depression. Aware 1890 303 302 Website 1Life is a 24 hour service for people in crisis 1Life 1800 247 100 Text – HELP 51444 Website If you need any further assistance you should contact the Health Service Executive’s National Office for Suicide Prevention at 01 – 01-6201672.

Yours sincerely,

David O’Connor

Private Secretary

My response:
Dear Mr O`Connor,

Thank you for your prompt reply to my correspondence regarding the medical use of cannabis. Before I address certain specific issues you raise I would like to make it clear that although at present I am only requesting a review for decriminalisation of cannabis for medical use, I strongly believe that consenting adults should be entitled under law to control of their own bodily integrity in accordance with our Constitution, specifically Article 40, and to use cannabis at their own discretion, particularly when alone at home. It is important to note that most, if not all, of the people who are using (currently illegally) cannabis to treat medical conditions such as MS, seizure disorders, depression and glaucoma (to name just a few), are already vulnerable and much more likely than the general population to be surviving on State benefits. For such people the imposition of a prison sentence and/or a fine that equates to around four months of income is extremely harsh and almost guaranteed to be catastrophic from a health perspective. It is therefore hard to understand how this policy can be regarded as a positive reaction to public health concerns. It seems obvious also, even if people do have addictions that are unrelated to medical conditions, that treating them as criminals is unlikely to have any positive outcome. In fact it has been shown in countries which have a more enlightened approach to drug addiction, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, the number of drug addicts has fallen significantly as the resources previously used to chase them through courts and maintain them in prison programmes have been instead channelled into rehabilitation and education programmes. State control of drugs also guarantees high quality and predictable potency, which in itself saves countless lives every year.

Drug Tourism:

Your reference to “drug tourism” seems somewhat disingenuous given the regular crowds of obnoxious, antisocial “tourists” found attending stag and hen parties, fighting, throwing up and destroying property in Temple Bar and other likely hotspots in Dublin and Cork. A visit to one of Amsterdam’s famous cannabis cafes will, conversely, show a lot of happy people quietly giggling, relaxing and being kind to strangers for no particular reason! Alcohol is a known depressant. In a country where the suicide rate is unusually high it seems irresponsible to allow the sale, let alone the promotion, of alcohol and I would suggest if these public health concerns you mention are a serious issue and if you genuinely believe that banning a substance will prevent people from taking it, then it is vital that legislation be drafted immediately which would ban all forms of alcohol forthwith.

The “Depressant” Effect & Cannabis Misuse:

In your statement you say, “Cannabis misuse is detrimental to health and significant physical and mental health risks are particularly associated with long-term use. Legalising cannabis may lead to increased levels of experimentation with drugs by young people”. Of all the studies that I have read even the most outrageous have never mentioned a physical risk and I would be obliged if you could refer me to the specific studies which have drawn this conclusion and inform me of the exact nature of the physical risks you mention. I think this statement would have better application when used to describe alcoholic drinks, as the physical and mental dangers of alcohol are well known to most Irish families and would require no extensive study to verify. Unlike cannabis, alcohol has no medicinal benefit and yet it is sold in Dáil Éireann. Can you explain how that is of any benefit to anyone? A depressant sold in our Dáil, where important matters of State are discussed, for less than the average price of a pint at €4.80. Using straightforward logic, Could you please put that into some kind of context for me? As a person who suffers from seizures and depression, alcohol would be detrimental to my health and I would almost definitely have a seizure after consuming even a small amount. Yet I’m not anti-alcohol and I find myself able to make the choice to refrain from drinking it without any need for legislation to tell me that this particular very dangerous drug does not suit my metabolism.

You say that legalising cannabis “may” lead to increased levels of experimentation with drugs by young people. Logically speaking that is unlikely to be true and in fact several studies (Reference 1 and 2 below) have shown that separating the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis from the drugs trade means that people are no longer shopping within the black market and are therefore less likely to be exposed to other drugs. If cannabis were decriminalised I imagine you would find that these people would collectively not describe themselves as drug users. You mention “side-effects”; in my case and in the cases of many other adults that I have spoken to, there seems to be no obvious harm from short-term or long-term use. The worst side-effect I have come across is slight memory loss, which rapidly disappears as the drug wears off. In fact the dangers could not even be compared to that of most generic anti-depressants. For example the increased risk of suicide and the definite dependence, weight gain and loss of libido known to be associated with many prescription drugs; these don’t compare to the insignificant side-effects of cannabis use.

The Isolation Fallacy:

You say that, “the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland cannot be considered in isolation of the other EU Member States as this could result in Ireland becoming a destination for ‘drug tourism’ with consequential social problems”. However, the fact is that decriminalising cannabis use for medical use would not in any way isolate Ireland in the way you have implied. In fact it would bring us closer to being in line with current knowledge. Medical cannabis is currently legal or decriminalised in Germany, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Possession of (small amounts of) cannabis is generally tolerated or not penalised in Belgium, Croatia, Estonia and Switzerland. Italy has put forward a proposal to fully legalise with 60 bipartisan politicians of that country backing the proposal. With such support this is expected to go through. Italy and all the countries mentioned above are signatories of the many UN Conventions and Treaties. None of these appear to have been in anyway isolated for making these sovereign decisions.

An appeal for common sense:

My issues are not currently surrounding the full legalisation and regulation of recreational use such as Uruguay, Colorado, Washington, Alaska or Oregon, where it has not resulted in the collapse of society as we know it. Nor am I asking the Minister or the Department to consider the “Dutch Model” or even the discreet Spanish Cannabis Clubs already operating within Europe with fully decriminalised non-taboo recreational use – All these countries/states are also signed up to all the same United Nations Conventions and Treaties that the Republic of Ireland has ratified – I am merely requesting a logical review of the medical situation in Ireland. I am asking you why I can`t use cannabis in my own home to treat my depression and seizures without being criminalised, when it is the only medicine available that I can take without side-effects; surely this right should be guaranteed to me under our Constitution. I appreciate your concern that this is a time of crisis for me and your kind provision of various phone numbers of helpful organisations. However, the crisis causing my current distress has been caused by the State and its discriminatory laws and nothing else. The crisis has not been brought on because I suffer from depression or because stress causes me to have more seizures, but because the State won’t allow me to sit in my own home and grow and use cannabis to treat my symptoms. It is very much a time of crisis. I may lose my freedom, I feel hopeless and almost desperate. In many ways, I feel like I am already imprisoned by medical conditions for which I am being denied treatment, and I fear that if I am physically imprisoned because of this I may become suicidal.

When I look beyond our borders I see that many of our neighbours are enlightened; they know that medical cannabis exists and that it is helpful. It’s as if there’s a memo going around Europe that Ireland refuses to acknowledge. A poll published yesterday with over 4,000 participants in the Irish Examiner online, seems to confirm that 93 per cent of people agree with my position on this matter. That is a greater majority than has been won by any government ever elected in this State and should certainly give legislators some pause when considering the matter. I look forward to your response and I hope you will be able to provide me with specific references and proofs of the dangers and ill-effects you mention so that I may educate myself further on the matter.

Yours sincerely,

Colm Sides


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