16 Feb Cannabis Campaigning In The Emerald Isle

A few weeks ago, Graham de Barra of SSDP Ireland invited me to speak in the debate “Should cannabis be legalised?” to be held at University College Cork.

So, last weekend, I drove to Fishguard in Pembrokeshire and boarded the ferry to Rosslare. While I enjoyed watching Wales beat Scotland at Murrayfield, the dogs slept the voyage away in the back of the car. By the time we reached Ireland it was dark so the three hour drive to Cork was spent following signposts rather than enjoying the scenery. Waking the next morning I was delighted to discover that Cork is a very pretty and friendly city. My hotel was right opposite the main gate of university which is a beautiful combination of classical gothic architecture and modern, stylish design. It is a stunning environment, infused with a gentleness and charm that is unique to Ireland.

Cannabis is a very live issue in Ireland. Although even Sativex is not yet available, there is a healthy campaign with a number of groups and activists all of whom seem to work together with none of the bickering and conflict that goes on in the UK. Even the government is responsive enough that when Noel McCullagh embarrassed it at the European Parliament last year, it seemed to have an effect. Although Noel has been granted no mercy or compassion, his efforts have created movement and it looks as though Sativex will soon be permitted. Noel is a hero for our cause and a man that Ireland should honour for his courage and suffering.

All the people I met in Ireland seemed focused and united. They endure the additional problem of paramilitary involvement in the drugs trade. This is organised crime where violence is a first resort and with 20 euros per gram now the going rate, it is a recipe for mayhem. They have the same issues with cannabis farms as we do and just as much prejudice and misinformation in the media. One of the most astonishing demonstrations of ignorance I have ever heard came from Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs who said last year:

“…those growing cannabis crops are mixing THC chemicals into water being used to water the Dr HJ#plants, and this is greatly increasing the potency.”

I hope that in time the Irish government will move towards a rational and evidence based policy but, just as the UK follows the US, so Ireland follows the UK. They really need us to make progress. We are fighting for more than just ourselves.

After breakfast I made my way to the Utopia Nation coffeeshop on Barrack Street where I met Graham and his colleague Richy Sheehy. Utopia Nation is everything you would expect from an Amsterdam coffeeshop but without that important magic ingredient. It is though, without doubt, Ireland’s coolest grow shop with everything you can possibly imagine for growing your own. I learned more than ever before about lights, grow tents, nutrients and different techniques.

Utopia Nation is run by Paul Sheppard and his partner Ella Goddin who is a US national and deeply involved in the twinning arrangements between Cork and San Francisco. They plan to bring awareness of San Francisco’s medical marijuana services to the people of Ireland. They are a dynamic and very impressive couple with open minds and hearts, focused on the most laudable aims and ambitions. I wish I knew more such people in Britain.

With Ella’s two Yorkshire terrier/minature poodle crosses, we seemed set for a confrontation with Carla and Capone but the dogs set us humans a fine example and by the end of the afternoon they were all firm friends, sleeping in a heap while we continued to discuss our favourite subject.

With Richy on camera, Graham then interviewed me about CLEAR and the campaign in Britain. This should be available in week or so on YouTube. We managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the local hostelry and then it was time for the debate.

The venue was superb. A tiered lecture theatre, capable of seating 200 people , probably about half full. My opponent Dr Johnny Connolly of the Irish Health Research Board was already there, as was Gordon McArdle, the legendary Irish medicinal cannabis activist who used to run a medical marijuana dispensary in the Napa Valley, California. Last year Gordon drafted the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act and presented it to Pat Carey, then minister for the Irish National Drugs Strategy. It is a model for the regulation of medicinal cannabis which I wholeheartedly endorse. CLEAR will be sending copies to the UK health ministers and asking for their consideration.

The debate was filmed and should be available on YouTube in a few days. It was a fine occasion with a lively and active audience. There was passion and argument, scepticism and belief, all in a friendly atmosphere of courtesy and respect. It was more than fine. It was magnificent. There was no rancour, no rudeness, no aggression and no unpleasantness. It was an example of civilised debate which British activists could learn a great deal from.

In the end Gordon and I won comfortably. Dr Connolly is a man of honour and he put up a good argument, as good as I have seen. However, he readily agreed in the end that medicinal use is something that deserves serious and proper consideration but he remained firm in his opposition to general legalisation.

I could only stay for a short while afterwards before the drive back to Rosslare but I had the great pleasure of meeting Brian Houlihan, one of Ireland’s foremost campaigners. Also, Florian Scheibein, one of the cleverest and smartest activists I know who never fails to teach me something new every time we are in contact.

So to another three hour dash along the dark roads of Ireland, a few snatched hours of sleep and the ferry again. It was a pleasure and a privilege. I salute our brothers and sisters in Ireland.