The Journal.ie, March 21
Let’s get the obligatory admission out of the way: I have smoked cannabis. The first time was when I was 16 and shared a spliff with a friend in a park near where I live. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. A gust of wind caught the joint (which was made of copybook paper) as I took a drag, and it flared spectacularly. The result was a night spent wandering about a school disco, hacking and spluttering and failing to chat anyone up. When I got home, I discovered why. My eyebrows were missing.
It’s a painful memory.
I’ve smoked it a handful of times since then, always when I’ve had too much to drink. I’ve always felt sick as a poisoned rat afterwards. Weed is not for me.
Some of my middle-aged friends still smoke cannabis. I’ve no problem with that so long as they’re not driving a bus or a plane, or off their heads and holding a shotgun. If you want to poison yourself, go ahead, just be aware of the risks. I’m not going to grass up anyone for smoking grass.
The drugs debate is not something I give much thought too. If pressed, I’d say that I’ve never found the ‘pro’ arguments convincing. Not least the argument I call the ‘Stoner’s Theory of Relativity’ (aka ‘Story’). This is the claim that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and should be legalised. It’s a top-of-the-head non-argument, which is seldom backed up with anything other than “surveys have shown”.
Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan TD is a great exponent of this Stoner’s Theory of Relativity. He trotted it out again to Marc Coleman on Newstalk last week. “The World Health Organisation says cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco,” he said, with the conviction of a man who has had the last word on the issue.
The problem was that Ming didn’t specify which WHO report he was referring to. More importantly, he didn’t mention what else the WHO says about cannabis: “The acute effects of cannabis use has been recognised for many years, and recent studies have confirmed and extended earlier findings.”
Here are a few examples: * Cannabis impairs cognitive development. * It affects the memory and prolonged use may lead to greater impairment (which may not recover with cessation of use). * Chronic users are likely to develop a dependence. * It can exacerbate schizophrenia in affected individuals. * Long-term smoking damages the trachea and major bronchi. * Cannabis used during pregnancy is associated with impairment in foetal development. It may also lead to post-natal risk of rare forms of cancer. (http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/facts/cannabis/en/.)
After ‘quoting’ the WHO, Ming went on to make a vague reference to some studies from the 1960s. The ’60s were half a century ago. People thought tobacco was good for you back then. (See http://wn.com/Ad-More_Doctors_Smoke_Camels_Than_Any_Other_Cigarette )
When would you prefer your health research from, the ’60s or today? Or how about the Victorian era? Flanagan also referred to a report that said “masturbation makes you go blind”. What report? What rubbish. If Flanagan wants to engage with people who have an open mind about the legalisation issue, then he needs to stop trivialising it.
He needs to stop weeding out the information he doesn’t like. Stop conflating “less harmful” with “harmless”. This glib approach to cannabis’ side effects short-changes those of us who want to hear a rational, scientific debate on the issue.
Campaigners also need to either cop themselves on to (or stop lying about) the fact that cannabis’ potency has changed dramatically over the years. It’s not a ‘harmless little weed’. According to the UN’s World Drug Report 2009, “of the many people who use cannabis, very few understand the increase in its potency… Cannabis has changed dramatically since the 1970s. New methods of production have increased the potency and negative effects … It is important to understand cannabis potency because of its link to health problems including mental health.”
Ming seems to be an amiable, hard-working family man. He’s a hugely entertaining addition to the Dail. He’s dogged, determined, witty and articulate. However, his glib approach to Tuesday’s interview did neither him nor his argument any favours.
Here are some questions he could answer: I drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and I accept the evidence that both are bad for me. Why do stoners have such a problem accepting that dope is bad for your health too?
At what age can you start smoking cannabis? Stoners don’t generally make great students, so do we limit its use to those who have finished secondary school? Age restriction doesn’t work with alcohol, so it won’t work with cannabis. Do we bother with age restriction at all?
The ‘pros’ say legalising will take drug dealing out of the hands of criminals. Will it? Or will they just undercut the legal suppliers, in the same way cigarette smugglers do?
Or sell cheaper synthetic alternatives? Should we legalise all drugs?
Ming points out that there is a difference between abuse and use. He’s absolutely right.
Not all cannabis smokers will become psychotic or graduate to heroin. The fact remains, however, that some will. What constitutes ‘abuse’ in Ming’s view?
One of the more annoying aspects of Ming’s campaign is his repeated use of Senator David Norris’ ‘example’. Ming cites him whenever he’s challenged about his-law-breaking. Senator Norris was openly gay when homosexuality was illegal here. He fought a cruel and unjust law.
Ming is suggesting cannabis legalisation is a Civil Rights issue. It’s not. It’s a health issue. One of his supporters said on this website two weeks ago that Ming was engaging in “civil disobedience”. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been an affront to Norris, Rosa Parks, the early Sinn Fein movement, Ghandi, the Civil Rights protestors in the North etc.
Ming may get his martyrdom yet. Kilkenny councillor, John Coonan, is writing to the gardai about his drug use. Coonan is a former psychiatric nurse who has seen his share of young people suffering from cannabis-related depression. Coonan’s complaint will increase pressure on the gardai to investigate Flanagan.
Perhaps a court case will lead to a definitive drugs debate which won’t resort to stupid comments about masturbation or 1960s surveys. If afterwards, Ireland decides that – despite the obvious health risks – it wants to decriminalise cannabis, then so be it.
Ming is, potentially, one of our brightest new political stars. He is also the first politician of this new Dail to be publicly disingenuous to the electorate. He needs to come clean about the effects of cannabis use. His crusade is not a Civil Rights issue like Norris’s. It’s about Luke wanting to get stoned, that’s all. It’s about personal gain.
And we’ve had enough of politicians lying and spinning for personal gain. Haven’t we Deputy Flanagan?