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Legalisation of cannabis is the last thing Ireland needs

When the State of New York legalised cannabis for recreational use in 2021, NYC Mayor Eric Adams applauded the change as a “promising step.”

“Today marks a major milestone in our efforts to create the most equitable cannabis industry in the nation,” Adams said in December of last year, in what was a warm reception for the opening of the city’s first legal weed dispensary. He was speaking as droves of New Yorkers queued around the block to get their hands on potent marijuana and edibles as the first store of its kind opened in lower Manhattan.

“The opening of the first legal dispensary in our state right here in New York City is more than just a promising step for this budding industry — it represents a new chapter for those most harmed by the failed policies of the past,” Adams claimed.

That was in December last year. By February, Adams was already expressing concern that illegal stores were selling unregulated and untested cannabis products designed to lure in children.

“We have to zero in on this cannabis stuff. We can’t have people make a mockery of our system,” he declared in a speech given at city hall just two months after welcoming the law change, in one of a series of speeches where he expressed unease about the city’s growing drug problem.

I don’t think many were left scratching their heads, really. Because, well, who wouldn’t have guessed that a city long plagued with rising levels of drug-related crime, violence and gang expansion, maybe just didn’t need more weed?

New York was always a city of pungent aromas. The last time I visited back in 2018, there were the regular odours found in any big city. But you could still enjoy the novelty of Times Square or the peace found in the sweeping lawns of Central Park without being overpowered by a stench.

When I returned earlier this month (for the first time since cannabis became legal), the scent of weed had broken through. It was everywhere. There were the regular unpleasant city smells, but much worse was the added overpowering, pungent stench of weed at every corner. Even in places like Central Park, the smell of fast food and flower beds had been replaced by the waft of weed in the air. Everywhere you turn, the city of blinding lights feels more like the city that really stinks.

There is a sense that because it’s now legal, people just don’t care who it’s affecting. The smell permeates the air, even in the nicest places. There is a sense of disrespect there, because the putrid smell makes the city no place for families with small children.

The odour of the drug is even distracting tennis stars. This week during the US open, one headline caught my eye: Greek tennis player Maria Sakkari complained about the smell of weed wafting onto the court. “The smell, oh my gosh, I think it’s from the park. It was weed,” she told the chair umpire during a changeover.

Advocates say the smell is a reminder of the progress made since the days of marjuana prohibition, but growing acceptance of the drug has created a smell problem in New York City which is, from my anecdotal evidence anyway, out of control. The city has a depressing, potent edge to it which makes even the most iconic streets and attractions seem underwhelming, and even makes Dublin, seem, well, not all that bad.

Those who advocated for the legalisation of weed said it would disrupt and undermine the criminal market by bringing the drug under state regulation and imposing taxation. That it would benefit public health by reducing the harms of the drug through responsible production. But oversupply is now a problem – habitual users of the drug can get it cheaper on the black market, which will always undercut legal dispensaries.

Because of this, the legal weed industry is on the verge of collapse and “in crisis” the National Cannabis Industry Association warned this week, with a glut of weed production following legislation only serving to push prices down.

What’s more, smoking violation complaints in the city have soared by an average of 86 per cent since weed was legalised in New York -– compared to the decade before. Smoking complaints in parks have gone up by 44 per cent. (While records don’t specify if this is attributable to weed or cigarettes, fewer adults in NYC are smoking cigarettes – with the prevalence of smoking having halved from 2002 to 2020.)

And as we have often seen, where America has gone, Ireland is determined to follow. Similar campaigns to legalise cannabis here have gained steady traction since the Oireachtas Health Committee rejected a Bill to legalise the gateway drug in 2017.

In December last, the Joint Committee on Justice recommended that the government decriminalise drugs like cannabis, and do one better by considering legalising it. That report was heavily influenced by advocacy groups and activists from groups like Patients for Safe Access and Crainn, who use many of the same arguments made across US states – highlighting harm reduction, regulation for safer use, and the supposed damage of prohibition.

Last year, People Before Profit TD’s Gino Kenny introduced a bill to legalise adult-use cannabis for personal use; allowing those over 18 to possess up to 7 grams of cannabis or 2.5 grams of cannabis resin. Unlike New York’s law, the bill doesn’t include the sale of cannabis products or the cultivation of cannabis plants for personal use, meaning cannabis users would most likely continue to purchase cannabis from the illegal market.

A report from the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs is expected before the close of 2023, amid claims that an overhaul of the current law is “imminent.”

“We need a different narrative around drug reform,” according to Gino Kenny. But does Ireland really need legal cannabis? From the evidence available, and from the experiences of other countries, surely that’s the last thing Ireland needs, and in plain terms, it’s a recipe for disaster.

It was argued for years the drug was harmless – but we now know that’s far from the case. Some will remember when, in 1997, The Independent Newspaper in Britain launched a campaign to decriminalise the drug. Years later, it would go on to offer an apology for the campaign, under the pressure of growing evidence of the harms of cannabis.

Not only is cannabis a gateway drug, but it has long been associated with increased mental health difficulties in youth, with growing evidence it can cause mental illness and psychosis.

In May, the possible link between schizophrenia and heavy cannabis use was cemented in a study from Denmark, published in the Journal of Psychological Medicine. The research, likely to be the largest epidemiological investigation on the subject connected to date, examined health records of 6.9 million people, spanning from 1972 to 2021.

It found that up to 30 per cent, or a fifth, of schizophrenia diagnoses – roughly 3,000 in total – could have been avoided in young men aged 21 to 30 if the individuals had not developed cannabis use disorder.

On top of that, legalisation only fuels the belief that ‘weed is harmless’ – but in Ireland, more than 3,000 people were hospitalised for consuming cannabis products from 2018-2022. There were 3,277 hospitalisations in total for mental and behavioural disorders due to the use of cannabinoids – more than from the use of cocaine.

Over the same course of time, 189 people were hospitalised for poisoning caused by use of cannabis products. It is also an addictive drug, with about a third of regular users showing signs of dependance; The HRB estimates there are about 45,000 people in Ireland with cannabis addiction.

Making a drug legal does not suddenly exempt people from the damage it will inevitably cause, but is surely more likely to widen the pool of users. A study from Colombia University throws cold water on the widely repeated claim that prohibition has been damaging – having found  that rates of ‘addiction’ to cannabis in legal states are around 40 per cent higher than in places of prohibition. There is nothing to suggest Ireland will be an exception to the rule.

Cannabis is more dangerous than you think, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Missouri State Medicine, which detailed how rising use of cannabis post-legalisation fuelled violence in psychotic people through its tendency to cause paranoia. One 2007 paper in the Medical Journal of Australia looked at 88 defendants who had committed homicide during psychotic episodes, and found that almost two thirds reported misusing cannabis – more than alcohol and amphetamines combined.

A 2012 paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that use of the drug was associated with a doubling of domestic violence in the USA. Another 2017 paper in the Journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, which examined drivers of violence among 6,000 British and Chinese men, found that the drug was linked to a fivefold increase in violence, and the drug used almost always was cannabis.

I can’t possibly see how Ireland, where call-outs for domestic violence have increased, and where the homicide rate is up, could benefit from the legalisation of the drug. In fact, it’s probably the last thing Ireland needs right now.

Indeed, former District Judge, Desmond Zaidan, says Ireland should resist all attempts to legalise the drug. He pointed to other states which have tried to re-criminalize the drug – including in the Netherlands, where drug tourism has attracted street dealers, with the atmosphere described as “grim, especially at night” in cities like Amsterdam, according to the city council — which is moving to try and prohibit the smoking of the drug on its inner city streets.

Speaking in June, Mr Zaidan also cited European Union research showing that a staggering 70 per cent of regular cannabis users had suffered permanent brain damage as a consequence of “smoking dope.” He went on to say that the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland would lead to the bizarre scenario of authorities endorsing the use of cannabis – while condemning the consumption of tobacco.

There are plenty of reasons why Ireland should not become a weed-smoking free-for-all. We should learn lessons from the US, Canada and the Netherlands, where the cannabis policy experiment has only ended in dismal failure.

I suspect, though, that we will, as always, push ahead despite the evidence, and despite our better judgement, simply because everybody else is doing it. And as ever, we’ll have to learn the hard way.

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