Earlier this year the College of Psychiatrists issued a stark warning to the Irish public by announcing that marijuana poses the “gravest threat” to the mental health of young people in Ireland. According to the report the number of youths hospitalised with cannabis-related disorder has jumped a worrying 300% in the past 10 to 15 years. The report reopened the debate on whether the use of marijuana for recreational purposes should be legalised here in Ireland.
There are valid claims to be made on both sides of the divide, each putting forward succinct arguments that highlight why legalising marijuana is such a heated topic.
Bobby Smyth, a doctor who has been working in adolescent addiction services for the past 18 years, argues that the legalisation of the drug would lead to increased numbers of people using it and inevitably contribute to more addiction and harm.
“Young people who do use cannabis regularly are using a more potent drug then was used 15 years ago and also using it more regularly,” he said.
When looking towards countries that have legalised recreational marijuana use, Smyth says that in Colorado research shows a three-fold increase in completed suicides in young people that tested positive for marijuana. He adds that this does not mean that the deaths were caused by the plant, not in every case, but that it is worrying to see the substance “cropping up in more and more suicides”.
Dr Smyth disputes the claim that “cannabis doesn’t kill anyone” saying that this statement is clearly not true. While he is unaware of anyone who has died of a cannabis overdose, alcohol overdoses only account for 5-10% of alcohol related deaths in Ireland with the majority of deaths more linked to intoxication and chronic use. Although there may be no overdoses accounted for, there may be marijuana related deaths similar to those seen with alcohol misuse such as road fatalities, chronic use, and suicide.
While People Before Profit’s TD Gino Kenny hopes that The Cannabis Regulation and Control Bill that is currently being drafted will be introduced to the Dáil before the end of 2021.
“Currently there is no regulation, no quality control, we want to regulate use and remove the black market out of the marijuana industry so to provide better outcomes for those who choose to use cannabis.”
In a regulated Irish system, Kenny says people could legally buy marijuana in a dispensary or in a coffee shop. Amounts sold would be standardised and people would also be permitted to grow a certain amount for personal use. He says that the models of legalisation existing in Uruguay and Oregon are good examples to replicate in Ireland. Concerning the report by the College of Psychiatrists he says “you have to take that advice very seriously, there could be a situation where people develop problem use – but the vast majority of people will never experience that.”
Kenny argues that what the psychiatrists are saying should not be trivialised but that “marijuana will, and is, being used whether it is legal or not.” Currently without quality control people do not know what they are smoking or using in relation to THC or CBD amount when buying from the black market.
The market is an area where both Smyth and Kenny appear to agree. Neither interviewee wants to see the “spectre of corporate cannabis” in Ireland where the plant is monopolised by huge corporations. In Kenny’s idea of legalisation, dispensaries would be State run. For Smyth he says that legalisation would lead to commercial interests taking over as seen with tobacco and alcohol. The illegal trade of marijuana in Ireland as it stands is evidently a lucrative industry. On 8 October a former Garda superintendent was charged over a seizure of cannabis worth more than €13,000.
The number of grave threats to young people’s mental health in Ireland are many. Lack of mental health care, the housing crisis, extortionate rents and job insecurity are among the few. It is easier to scapegoat a substance as being the “gravest” of these threats without addressing the others or recognising that the other issues may have a hand in substance use or abuse.
Blindboy Boatclub of The Rubberbandits (an Irish comedy hip-hop duo) says that people misuse substances as a form of self-medication to lessen their mental health problems and that many who attempt to access forms of counselling in Ireland, face waiting lists that run into months. Focusing on marijuana abuse distracts from the lack of mental health. He believes that marijuana should be legalised, regulated, and taxed with the money raised being put into mental health care.
The warnings from the College of Psychiatrists should not be discounted but prohibition is not working, particularly if young people’s use is increasing. Concerns about the potency levels could be addressed by regulation. As long as addictive substances exist, substance misuse will occur and eradication is not an option.
Consenting adults seeking an alternative to alcohol consumption find that marijuana offers a substitute, as seen and proved in countries where it has been legalised. More robust education on the harms attributed to marijuana use could be provided and then, like with other legal substances, adults could be permitted to make their own decisions.