The current wave of marijuana-related activism has spread to Ireland. Both the spread of Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapters and a recent bill in the national legislature should give residents of the UK’s western neighbor reason for optimism.
A bill was put to a vote in the national Irish legislature, the Dáil, on Tuesday. The proposed measure would have taxed and regulated the marijuana industry, even allowing home cultivation, and marked the first time the issue was ever debated in the Dáil. Members of the Irish parliament are known as Teachta Dála or TDs. Luke “Ming” Flanagan, and independent TD who introduced the bill, estimated that a 13% tax would bring in €60 ($80.57) million in revenue from the nation’s estimated 150,000 current cannabis users. Flanagan further cited medical evidence that the drug is not as harmful as commonly thought, and has also noted the severity of the legal penalties for a possession conviction.
Unfortunately, the measure failed by a vote of 111-8. The major political parties in Ireland generally oppose legalization, including Sinn Fein, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Fine Gael. Opponents of the measure repeated the frequently debunked “gateway” hypothesis, by which marijuana is blamed for the later use of more dangerous substances, despite data showing the vast majority of marijuana users never use cocaine or heroin. The bill’s eight supporters, along with Flanagan, included members of the minor left-wing parties People Before Profit and the Socialist Party, along with two other independents.
Representation of the issue in the legislature, though, may be lagging behind public opinion in the island nation. Possession of the drug has mostly been illegal since 1977, but one online poll conducted in June of this year by the Irish news outlet The Journal had 75% of respondents saying “yes” to the question “should we legalise cannabis in Ireland?” The same question asked in October of this year garnered a full 84% support. These are not scientific polls, but are still surprising in comparison with the mere 7% support expressed in the Dáil.
Most respondents in the survey, approximately 69%, actually did not support legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. This still indicates much wider support in the general population than in the legislature, however. Further, a large majority1 supported its legalization for medical use, which has yet to be approved in the country.
Despite the possibility of a criminal conviction or even a prison term depending on the circumstances, approximately one quarter of Irish people have used cannabis at some point in their lives, according to data from the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol for 2010/2011. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime figures suggest that only 6% of Irish people have used the substance in the past year. These are similar to the rates in the Netherlands, where a long-standing policy of limited tolerance essentially allows the small-scale distribution and consumption of the drug. Prohibition, in other words, has not had the expected effect on use. According to Dr. Cathal O’Sullivan, though, it has been successful in funding the black market to the tune of at least €1 million per year.
Further support for marijuana policy reform is evident from the recent success of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Chapters in Ireland. Graham deBarra founded Ireland’s first SSDP chapter at University College Cork in 2012, and has since established a chapter at National University of Ireland, Galway in October of this year. He estimates that the latter now has 30 people actively involved in campaigns and event planning, and 300 members overall. Both of these are highly prestigious universities.
Irish public opinion has not yet experienced the shift evident in the US on the issue of marijuana. Advocates in Ireland, though, have reason to hope for progress in their lifetimes.
Image credit to en.wikipedia.org.
1. See page 17.