Pubdate: Sat, 06 Jul 2013
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2013 The Irish Times
Author: Brian O'connell


Users believe cannabis - most popular with higher socioeconomic 
groups - is now socially acceptable, and most people would like it 
legalised for medicinal use. But should it be?

'I live at home with my dad and I smoke weed in front of him and it 
doesn't faze him in the least. There is no taboo with it anymore," 
explains Pauline Scanlon, a singer from Dingle and a habitual cannabis user.

As cannabis users go, Scanlon is in fact in the minority. The 
majority of users, according to a National Advisory Committee on 
Drugs and Alcohol (NACD) report published this week, are male. Of 
those who have tried it in their lifetime, 35 per cent are from 
higher socioeconomic groups such as professionals, managers or civil 
servants. Of the general population, one in four 15- to 64- year-olds 
have tried cannabis in their lifetime, which is an increase of 3 per 
cent on the last survey conducted in 2006/07.

Lifetime usage rates were also highest among those who ceased 
education at 20 or those who completed third level, compared with 
those who left school at 15, indicating its popularity among higher 
socioeconomic groups. Students and those dependent on State aid were 
most likely to have used cannabis in the past month.

The study also highlighted the increased preference for cannabis herb 
or weed over cannabis resin in recent years. In 2007, 53.8 per cent 
of cannabis used was hash, which declined to 22.6 per cent in 2011. 
The use of cannabis herb jumped from just 8.4 per cent of the 
cannabis used in 2007, to 46.5 per cent in 2011, as more drugs are 
being grown, harvested and consumed here.

Socially acceptable

Despite a feeling among cannabis users that the drug has become more 
socially acceptable, the report found that 69 per cent of the general 
population is against legalising recreational cannabis use, while 66 
per cent would be in favour of allowing cannabis use solely for 
medical purposes.

The Irish Medicines Board has received a market authorisation 
application from a pharmaceutical company for Sativex, a cannabinoid 
mouth spray. Following the publication of the NACD report, Minister 
Alex White said that plans are at "quite an advanced stage in 
preparing regulations to allow for a very limited availability of 
cannabis for medical purposes".

Dr Chris Luke, consultant in emergency medicine at Mercy University 
Hospital in Cork, has given the news a guarded welcome but issued 
some reservations.

"So-called ' medicinal use' of cannabis, and products derived from 
the many ingredients of the cannabis plant, is arguably a Trojan 
horse for the liberalisation of cannabis availability," he says.

"The scientific evidence supporting medicinal application of 
cannabinoids remains only marginally positive and the ' medicalised' 
version of the drug brings with it serious hazards, most notably 
cognitive impairment [ of concentration and memory] and occasional 
'mental illness'."

One of those patients currently relying on cannabis for medicinal 
purposes is 21-year-old Aodh Rua, who was diagnosed with a rare form 
of cancer called Ewing's sarcoma two years ago. Prior to this, he had 
used cannabis recreationally, but he says he now relies on the drug 
to help him to get through chemotherapy.

"I have a lot of problems with chemo including loss of appetite and 
nausea," he says. "Cannabis worked better than anything they could 
give me in hospital. When I ran out of dope, I'd be throwing up for 
12 hours non-stop. When I have dope, I would barely notice there was 
anything wrong with me. It made that kind of difference."

Rua says he is not as interested in the cannabis spray that is being 
suggested for medical use and prefers to buy it in its original, 
herbal form. He has come to know which types of cannabis work best 
for him and he sticks to trusted suppliers. He believes the vast 
majority of people have no problem with the Government legalising 
cannabis for medicinal use and many doctors are aware patients use it.

"I'm the one guy in the chemo ward not getting sick and moaning about 
the horrible treatment. I wish the rest of those beside me could feel 
the same, but we are limited by the law."

While acceptance of medicinal use of cannabis is progressing, those 
at the frontline of substance addiction lead arguments against 
legalising recreational use of cannabis.

Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director of the Rutland Centre, says she 
finds it hard to understand how the drug is so socially acceptable, 
given its effects. "For the past 10 years, I have found the attitude 
to cannabis in this country incredible. There is a lot of evidence 
internationally about the damage it does but people still hold on to 
the view that it is a recreational drug and the lesser of all the 
evils out there."

Similarly, at the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre in Kilkenny, 
where 15- to 21-year-olds are treated for addiction, family services 
manager Geraldine Hartnett says cannabis use is present in the 
majority of cases they come in contact with. "The trends we are 
seeing are that approximately 95 per cent of young people who come 
into us identify cannabis as one of their drugs and, in some cases, 
their main drug. "We were struck by the fact that there is this call 
to make it legal and it seems to be more socially acceptable."

Independent TD Luke "Ming" Flanagan, who has long campaigned for the 
legalisation of cannabis, believes it is only a matter of time before 
steps are taken to make it legal in Ireland. He will introduce his 
own cannabis legalisation bill in the Dail in the autumn, and he 
points to other countries and states where it has been made legal in 
recent years.

"Places such as Colorado and Washington are legalising it, as well as 
Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico. There is an evolution taking place. 
Legalisation is on the way here and I don't think anything will stop 
it," he says.

Colin Bolger, who is 26, has been unemployed for three years, and is 
a regular cannabis user who believes it should be made legal. He says 
that he has noticed how much more accepting society has become of the 
drug in recent years.

Bolger lives in a small town in Co Tipperary and knows many cannabis 
users in his area. Those for whom it creates difficulties may have 
underlying issues and should probably steer away from the drug, he 
believes. "If people are smoking it because they are feeling bad or 
in a bad place, it is not a miracle worker. If you are not okay 
mentally then smoking cannabis is not good for you," he says.

The drawbacks for him are cost (regular users can spend upwards of 
euro 150 a week) and also ensuring he is not caught with the drug by gardai.

One former user is 21-year-old graduate Lorcan Murray, who decided to 
give up cannabis a month ago to concentrate on sports. Murray says he 
never met a single person against the drug in college, where he found 
cannabis was very accepted. He warns, though, that the full picture 
in relation to cannabis is not always told.

"I know people who are long-term unemployed and all they do is smoke 
weed and they fall into that pit. Nobody is out there telling the 
truth about cannabis," he says. "I don't hear many on the pro- 
cannabis side calling for moderation. I first smoked it when I was 16 
years old and I was smoking heavily by the time I was 19. I see 16- 
year-olds smoking a lot now and they don't realise their bodies and 
minds are still developing."

Murray says the perception is that the drug is not addictive but that 
this is not necessarily accurate. "I have learned that because I 
really had to pull it together to make it out of college. The other 
side of it is that there are no jobs at present. For some people I 
know they see it as the only way of making a bit of money, buying l 
arge amounts and selling it off in bits and then saving a bit for 
their own use."

While Murray says he may return to the drug, he thinks society needs 
to have a more candid debate about the drug before legalisation is 
considered. "Nobody is out there telling the truth about cannabis. 
One side is saying it is a bad thing and you should never touch it. 
The other side is saying don't worry as it is not that bad."
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