Private Members Motion, 5th November- Sale and Cultivation of Cannabis

I join in commending and applauding Deputy Flanagan on bringing about this worthwhile debate. It is critical that we would have such a debate in the House of Parliament. I agree with Deputy O’Sullivan that the debate should be broadened and that on this and future occasions we must examine the issues around the use of drugs and giving young people the necessary self esteem to deal with the problem. A broader debate is required on all of the safeguards.

Before we legalise a narcotic, we would have to examine the health and other implications. With respect to the proposer of the motion – it is a worthy debate – the balance of the greater good for society lies in the status quo. Careful consideration is required but the evidence tends to support that view. I will cite studies in due course but cannabis use can contribute to cognitive deficiencies, dependency and, if smoked, to smoking-related health problems such as throat and lung cancer and respiratory problems. The evidence supports the view that an array of health issues is unavoidable. Cannabis use is believed to contribute to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and in some cases, psychosis. The effect of cannabis on the mind of the user, especially if the user is an adolescent, is most disconcerting. Studies from Bristol University have shown that there are high levels of cannabis use among adolescents who show signs of schizophrenia. The primary psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, is known as THC. THC is known to have a significantly disruptive impact on the areas of the brain vital for memory and decision-making. It has been empirically established that people who smoke the drug between five and 20 times a month have a 10% greater incidence of such memory problems than non-users. Those who smoke cannabis more than 20 times a month have been found to be 20% more deficient. Cannabis use also heightens anxiety. Adolescents who use the drug are at a highly vulnerable age. The point was made that perhaps the THC levels are greater because the drug is illegal and cultivated underground. With respect to the proposer and his supporters I submit that it would not be possible to police the situation adequately and that even if cannabis were legalised one could not monitor THC levels and the problem would remain. For young people, their brains are still very much at the developmental stage, particularly from a cognitive and social behaviour point of view. The British Medical Journal found that the use of cannabis in adolescence increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia in adulthood and early cannabis use by age 15 confers greater risk for schizophrenia outcomes.

I am aware of the argument about pain relief. I am happy the Department has conducted a study on the use of cannabis for those suffering from multiple sclerosis. Dr. Henry McQuay, from Oxford University has sounded a note of caution in terms of the side effects on the nervous system. The jury is out to some extent on the issue but in so far as it is beneficial from a health point of view any civilised person would want the use of cannabis to be considered in that context.
With your indulgence, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle I wish to briefly mention a couple of issues. Reference has been made to the benefits of cannabis versus nicotine and alcohol. Were nicotine to be introduced now with the knowledge we have today it would not be made legal. Our attitude to alcohol has changed and is radically different. I commend the fact that the Minister will deal with the issue.

I am concerned about the potential of cannabis as a gateway drug. While it might sound a little old-fashioned and traditional I am genuinely concerned about the gateway factor. I say that as a teacher and the parent of three young boys. I point to the way head shops were used until the matter was addressed. A degree of experimentation was involved. A plethora of head shops quickly developed which was an indication of use, experimentation and the fact that they offered excitement. I fear that the legalisation of cannabis would lead to a gateway culture and a progression to more serious drugs. Support from a Yale University study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests the use of prescription drugs by people who initially use cannabis.

The Netherlands is cited as nirvana by proponents of the legislation but there are compelling and difficult statistics from that country which we cannot avoid. A total of 13,109 clients entered treatment for cannabis use in the Netherlands in 2011. A total of 48.3% of all those treated reported cannabis as their primary drug. The Netherlands National Drug Monitor annual report for 2011 stated that in the period between 2007 and 2009 nearly 30,000 adults aged between 18 and 64 were diagnosed with cannabis dependence. The associated health issues I outlined arise in the Netherlands where grave difficulties have arisen due to the legalisation of cannabis use.

I will finish on this point. I genuinely believe, first, that a serious body of evidence supports the connection between continuous cannabis use and mental health issues and, second, that there is a risk of it being a gateway drug. I believe we should not change the status quo until we get compelling evidence to the contrary. I would not have a difficulty with studies of the kind advocated by Deputy McNamara.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website