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A-Z of Drugs


'C' is for Cannabis

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

Finds of hemp seeds inside clay pipes dating back to the early Bronze age show that cannabis has been in use in Europe for over 4000 years, and probably much longer in central Asia. Although many people associate the drug with the ‘free love’ movements of the 1960’s when it was generally called ‘pot’, it continues to be the most used illegal drug across the world.

The plant is thought to have originated on the steppes of southern Siberia and was an important crop (utilising mainly the soft fiberous stalks known as ‘hemp’) in its own right. It was used commercially in a number of ways including the production of ropes. Henry the Eighth in England even demanded that arable farmers set aside some of the their land to ensure that the Royal Navy had an adequate supply of rigging for its warships. Hemp was also the rope of choice of the local hangman. In modern times it is still used in thousands of products including textiles, foodstuffs, paper, construction materials and even bio-fuels.

It is however the use of the ‘buds’ that most people think of when cannabis is refereed to, and especially its use as a psychoactive substance. The active ingredient that causes the ‘high’ is THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), one of over 100 cannabinoids that have been identified within the plant. The percentage of THC in a particular strain of cannabis can vary widely, and this may have been one of the reasons why ‘hash’ was developed in central Asia. The process of applying heat and pressure to the trichomes or resin glands leads to a greater concentration of the THC and thus more powerful effects for users.

Marco Polo, among others, had noted its use by a particular cult within Islam. The leader of this mystical branch of Shi’a Islam was called Hasan ibn-Sabha (or ‘the old man of the mountains’). He trained young boys to be deployed in a series of murders to remove the leaders enemies. The story goes that they were drugged and taken to a secret valley. When they awoke they found themselves in a paradise dripping with gold, silks and obliging dancing girls. When they returned to Hasan’s fortress they were ready to do whatever it took to get back to the paradise they had seen. These young men gained the nickname ‘Hashishins’ from which we derive the words ‘assassins’ and ‘Hash’. Other scholars think assassin is just an insulting term for ‘hashish users’.

The other advantage of Hash for drug dealers was its compact nature compared to the bulkier form of herbal cannabis or ‘weed’. This meant that it was much easier to smuggle across borders. In more recent years in Ireland the amount of Hash used has dropped significantly as it has been replaced by the production of weed by organized criminal organizations (OGC’s) within Ireland’s borders.

In recent years the use of cannabis has continued to evolve, many people believe that it has been legalised in many counties already. In fact only two countries, Uruguay and Canada, has gone down the road of full legalisation, albeit with regulations in place that are similar to their controls on alcohol. New Zealand and Luxembourg look to be the next countries to adopt this approach in the next few years. A good number of other countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Israel have de-criminalised cannabis to the extent that it is effectively legal. One of the drivers of this movement is the creation of ‘medicinal cannabis’. This is an area that has created confusion and misunderstandings aplenty. Cannabis, along with many other plants contains a number of substances that are very useful for the pharmaceutical industry. Chief among these are Cannabidiol (CBD) which exhibits none of the psychoactive effects of THC. As such extracts using CBD are legal in many countries (including Ireland). Legal problems may however occur if there are much smaller amounts of THC included in the resulting compound.

‘Medicinal’ cannabis however usually refers to the use of cannabis for pain relief where it has not been processed into a pharmaceutical product. As such many users report that it possesses many useful properties, although academic studies argue about and often dispute cannabis’ efficacy in this area. At the time of writing some 33 of the states of the United States allow cannabis to be used in some form or another with 11 having fully legalised the product. Conditions relating to the quantity, strength, and cultivation vary considerably, as do the medical problems that are seen as being suitable candidates for getting a license or prescription. Even in states such Colorado that have adopted a significantly more liberal approach a market still exists for cannabis that is not part of a now regulated system.

Back in Ireland the efforts of Luke ‘Ming’ Flannagan (Independent TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim) who spearheaded a motion to ‘call on the Government to introduce legislation to regulate the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland’ ended with a heavy defeat in the 2013 Dáil. A later attempt to bring in a bill to do just this was sponsored by Gino Kelly TD in 2016, but it remains stuck at an early stage of the legislative process.

Nevertheless when Health Minister Simon Harris recently signed legislation to allow for the operation of the Medical Cannabis Access Programme on a five-year pilot basis, he opened the door wider for an emerging sector which has significant potential to create jobs and a new revenue stream for the Government’s coffers. The programme has taken two years to establish, mainly due to difficulties in sourcing a suitable supplier of cannabis with the required quality assurances for export into Ireland.

While this outside supplier will cater to the immediate needs of the sector, the legislation does allow for potential local producers to apply to have their cannabis products assessed for suitability. Minister Harris said he has a “very open mind” about Ireland producing its own supply of cannabis and that “my gut feeling is it should”. Given that no medical cannabis products are currently available in the country, prospective suppliers can apply to the Health Product Regulatory Authority to have a product considered for inclusion in the schedule of “specified controlled drugs”.

Additionally, following Canada’s move to legalisation in 2018, Leo Varadkar stated that the idea of decriminalisation was at least ‘under consideration’ and went on to set up an expert group to consider the idea. The group produced their report this summer, listing a number of possible options for the government. They did not however see that decriminalisation along the lines of the ‘Portuguese model’ would be appropriate in the Irish context.

Alongside these legal developments we have also seen in more recent years a great deal of innovation in the cannabis market, especially in ‘hotspots’ such as Colorado. Some articles report that there are now a couple of dozen or so ways in which cannabis can be used. The product itself may now come in the form of a spray, a tincture (in an alcohol solution), a tea, an oil, a shatter (shards), a wax or a sweet-like edible. The methods of delivering cannabis into the body have also come a long way since the pipe-like ‘bong’ of the 1960’s with a bewildering array of vapourisers, dabs, pills, dissolvable strips, creams and patches now available.

Attitudes to cannabis remain in a state of flux but we have certainly witnessed a fundamental shift from when US President Bill Clinton (over 25 years ago now) was only prepared to say that he ‘Didn’t inhale’ to President Obama who famously said “When I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently “That was the point.”

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