As is the case with many American states, you can legally purchase hemp and CBD in Ireland. However, like the U.S., there is no general provision for the usage of weed. At least, this was the case until a recent change opened a chink of light. In June 2019, the Republic of Ireland’s Health Minister, Simon Harris, signed legislation that allows people to use medical marijuana in specific cases on a pilot basis for the next five years.
As it happens, the Emerald Isle has a bizarre loophole in place. You are legally allowed to sell, buy, or possess cannabis seeds for collection. Alas, germinating or growing weed from these seeds is strictly illegal! While there is a long way to go to change the nation’s attitude towards cannabis, the recent legislative action is a gigantic step forward.
A Brief History of Marijuana in Ireland
Technically, cannabis has been illegal in Ireland for slightly longer than in the United States. The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1934 predates the Marihuana Tax Act by three years. In Ireland’s version, the Free State prohibited weed and cannabis resin. It replaced the 1920 version of the act, which was a United Kingdom law passed before the establishment of the Irish Free State, on 6 December 1922.
Ireland’s suspicion of the herb is more amusing when you consider that it was an Irishman who probably introduced it to the Western world. Dr. William O’Shaughnessy brought it with him into Europe upon his return from India in 1839. On his travels, he saw its medicinal effects, especially its apparent capacity to relieve pain. He used it on his patients, and the drug remained popular in medical circles until the early 20th century.
Despite the ban, or perhaps because of it, marijuana use in Ireland increased towards the end of the 1960s. In an attempt to solve the problem, the government created a Working Party on Drug Abuse in 1968. Three years later, the group released a report recommending that the legal and medical status of weed remained under review. It also suggested prison time for the crime of possessing a small amount of the substance.
The 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act replaced the 1934 legislation and placed weed in a different legal category to other narcotics. Irish law enforcement (known as the gardai) is allowed to use discretion when it catches recreational users in the act. After an arrest, the cannabis sample is sent to the Police Forensic Science Laboratory for analysis. Given the time and expense involved, it is rare for the gardai to push for prosecution in minor cases.
Crime & Punishment
However, the gardai seize your stash after the arrest, and your name is taken and put on file. Marijuana possession remains a criminal offense. Data from the early 21st century showed that approximately 70% of all drug-related prosecutions involved cannabis, and 75% related to possession.
If caught in possession of controlled drugs such as cannabis or cannabis resin for personal use, you may receive a Class D fine, which equates to €1,000. A second offense may lead to a fine of €2,500, while a third conviction could result in a €3,000+ fine and a year in prison. Those caught selling weed may receive one year in jail. If the market value of the cannabis (or other drugs) is €13,000+, you could spend up to 10 years in prison!
The Tides Turns – Slowly
Towards the end of the millennium, punishments for weed crimes were usually less harsh than with other illegal drugs. By 1998, regulations under the 1977 Act listed marijuana, cannabis resin, CBN, and its derivatives, as schedule 1 drugs. All manufacture, production, preparation, sale, supply, distribution, and possession of such drugs was illegal for all purposes unless you received a license from the Minister for Health.
However, GW Pharmaceuticals received licenses to use a cannabis extract mouth spray (Nabiximols) in medical centers in Waterford and Cork in 2002 and 2003 on a trial basis. In 2014, the government removed Nabiximols from the list of schedule 1 substances.
Attempts at reform received a significant boost in 2011 when Luke Flanagan (nicknamed ‘Ming’) was elected to the Irish government as an independent TD. Known as a pro-cannabis campaigner, Flanagan began to steer the conversation towards medical marijuana legalization. In 2013, he introduced a motion that called on the government to legalize the cultivation, sale, and possession of weed and cannabis products in Ireland. Sadly, he had little support, and the motion lost by a whopping 111 votes to 8.
In 2015, the Minister of State in charge of the National Drugs Strategy, Aodhan O Riordain, announced his support for decriminalizing the substance, along with heroin and cocaine, for personal use. It was a bold and costly move as he lost his seat in the following year’s election!
The Irish Government Approves Medical Marijuana for the First Time
December 2016 was a big month for cannabis advocates in Ireland. Gino Kelly, of People Before Profit, introduced a private member’s bill to legalize medicinal marijuana in Ireland. The government agreed to allow the law to reach the second stage without a fuss, so it quickly got through the lower house. The legislation suggested allowing the herb for patients with serious illnesses such as fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis.
At the time, Kelly spoke to a national newspaper and outlined the increasing amount of evidence that patients prefer cannabis-based products rather than toxic alternatives such as sedatives and opioids. He also suggested that the War on Drugs was a ‘miserable failure’ (sound familiar?).
In the same month, the government issued the first-ever MMJ license for cannabis oil. They decided that a two-year-old boy with Dravet’s Syndrome, Tristan Forde, should continue the treatment he started in Colorado. The boy’s physician applied to the Minister for Health.
This decision started a trickle rather than a flood of applications. By February 2019, there were a total of 16 MMJ patients in Ireland. Each individual has to get a special license renewed every three months.
A Landmark Decision?
June 2019 saw another step towards legalization in Ireland. Simon Harris, the nation’s Health Minister, signed legislation to enable a Medical Cannabis Access Programme to operate on a pilot basis for the next five years. At the time, Harris acknowledged that the scheme would take several months to establish.
The big day came two years after Harris had initially announced his decision to establish an MMJ plan. It was a significant delay that caused friction between opposing sides in government. Reasons for the hold-up included difficulties in finding a quality-assured supplier that was also capable of delivering to Ireland.
According to the new scheme, a medical consultant can prescribe a weed-based treatment for a patient under their care. However, only patients with the following conditions qualify:
- Severe, treatment-resistant epilepsy
- Intractable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
- Spasticity associated with MS
In all cases, only individuals who have not responded to standard treatments are eligible. The new law also allowed pharmacists to dispense medical cannabis. The cost is the same as any other prescription. In other words, patients who are part of the drug payment scheme are covered under that, while medical cardholders receive their usual dispensation when it comes to prescription charges.
Harris said it is a ‘last resort’ treatment for patients, but it will probably attract thousands of applicants once it is up and running.
Could Ireland Grow Its Own?
As mentioned, one of the obstacles was finding a suitable grower and supplier overseas. However, Harris admitted that if the scheme is a success, Ireland could grow marijuana. Dr. James Linden of GreenLight Pharmaceuticals is confident that his homeland is an ideal breeding ground for marijuana farms.
He claimed that Ireland’s climate is better than the Netherlands for cultivating the herb. Bear in mind that the Dutch do an outstanding job of growing it under lights. According to Linden, Ireland benefits from a temperate climate with less concern about the excessive summer heat, an issue in the Netherlands, for example.
More to the point, Linden knows of several suitable locations for weed farms! He mentioned areas such as Donegal, Derry, Carlow, and Longford. However, he also pointed out that the country needs a massive growth area to satisfy the demand in the future. Linden said that the cost of setting up a suitable facility was around €15 million.
There Is Still Significant Opposition
While the recent legislation is excellent news, the likelihood is that medical marijuana legalization in Ireland is a long way away. A study by Smyth et al., published in the Irish Medical Journal in October 2019, outlined a few areas of concern. The main issue surrounds the usage of the herb among adolescents. According to the study, weed causes the most ‘disability’ amongst older teenagers out of all illicit drugs.
Perhaps more pertinently, the study suggested that the risk of dependence is at its highest amongst those who start using the substance at a young age. The researchers looked at data from three national treatment databases and two national population surveys, with a focus on people aged 33 and under. It also pointed out that the rate of marijuana-related hospital admissions increased by 200% from 2005 to 2017.
Final Thoughts on Medical Marijuana in Ireland
The road to medical marijuana legalization in the Emerald Isle is a long and treacherous one. After decades of campaigning, a sliver of light is now visible at the end of the tunnel. There is a medical cannabis program of sorts in place. Even though it is limited to a small percentage of the population, it is sure to attract a considerable number of applicants. If it is successful, who knows what the future will hold?
On the downside, it is a five-year trial, and it is doubtful that anything positive will happen on the legislative front during that time. Things will get extremely interesting if Ireland decides to grow its marijuana, however. The potential to earn additional tax revenue and supply to a global market could be too much to resist for the Irish government. Of course, any further attempts at legalization will meet stiff opposition that points out the damage caused to younger users.