With the passing of a five-year medical marijuana pilot program, and increased industrial cultivation of hemp, Ireland is working to reclaim its title as the greenest country, but it’s definitely taking its time.
Cannabis has been around for quite some time, factoring into folklore, as well as being a part of medical traditions in pretty much every place it grows. The inception of Western medicine had a profound effect on the use of native traditions, and generally overlooked plant medicine. By a certain point, simply healing oneself with the plant became an actual felony charge.
While it seems that cannabis just recently entered into Western medicine, this isn’t true at all. Not only was it a component of a huge percentage of all medications in the US before it was illegalized in the early-mid 1900’s, but it was being studied, talked about, and used in the 1800’s as well, and one of the reasons for this was an Irishman by the name of Dr. William O’Shaughnessy.
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Dr. William O’Shaughnessy
Born in 1808 in Limerick, Country Clare, Ireland, O’Shaunghnessy earned his MD from the University of Edinburgh in 1829. He had a varied career that spanned work with electric telegraphy, chemistry and biology for which he holds the designation of being the founder of IV replacement therapy, and pharmacology where he presented cannabis indica to the Western world. In 1842 he published Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopoeia with 25 pages dedicated to the use of cannabis in medicine, which is considered one of the most comprehensive research writings on the topic for that time period.
He joined the British East India Company in 1833 starting many years spent in India, and examining their local traditions. It was here that he started testing the folklore of cannabis, eventually promoting it for use with digestive issues, as a sedative, in dealing with pain, acute rheumatism, and other medical issues.
William O’Shaughnessy died in 1889 and wasn’t around to see the full illegalization of the plant he knew could be used for so much good. In fact, for all he contributed to the understanding of cannabis in Western medicine, the country he came from managed to completely ignore it, only just instituting its first official medicinal marijuana program in the last year (over 100 years after O’Shaughnessy’s death). I think O’Shaughnessy would have cried in his Murphys Irish Stout if he knew how many steps back were taken in the understanding of cannabis since his time, and the difficulty in getting even one step forward.
Cannabis in Ireland
In Ireland, the Misuse of Drugs Act (1977-2017) governs the legal framework for dealing with illicit substances. Drugs are split into schedules with a differentiation made between simple possession (for oneself) and possession with intent to sell. Penalties for simple possession are determined by the drug in question as well as the type of proceeding: summary conviction which is handed down by a judge, or conviction on indictment which is a trial case before a jury.
The penalty for being caught with cannabis or cannabis resins is €1000 – 2540 for the first two times. After that, a fine might be given, but an offender could also end up looking at 1–3 years of jail time (summary convictions receive less than indictments). An amendment was made in 2011 – the Criminal Justice Community Service Act, which works to promote community service orders over jail time in instances of sentences of up to one year.
Supplying cannabis in any way is illegal. The sale of any illegal drug in Ireland can garner a fine of up to €2,500, and it might come with a year long prison sentence to boot. When dealing with very large quantities, life sentences are not off the table, and there’s an automatic minimum 10-year sentence for selling drugs (including cannabis) with a market value of €13,000+. While this provision has been protested, the law has yet to be changed.
Cultivation is also illegal in Ireland, with the small and bewildering caveat that cannabis seeds are openly sold and legal to have, so long as they are never cultivated. They can be bought in stores, sent in the mail, ordered online…, but they can’t be grown. It’s a little bit strange, no doubt, but every part of the world seems to have its own peculiarities when it comes to cannabis regulation, and apparently Ireland is no different. Growing equipment is also illegal for sale in the country, as per the illegality of growing.
And now back to medical cannabis…
Considering that William O’Shaughnessy set the mark in the first half of the 1800’s by exploring the use of cannabis for a range of medical ailments, it’s a little sad that it took till 2019 for Ireland to so much as establish any kind of medical program. But that’s what happened, and in June of 2019, Ireland launched a five-year program allowing limited access to medical cannabis. It is only meant for the most severe of cases, and is generally associated with the treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and nausea from chemotherapy treatments.
Cannabis products can be obtained at local pharmacies, and patients with qualifying medical conditions who make the program, have the cost covered under Ireland’s Health Service Executive. In all, it’s not the most comprehensive medical cannabis program out there, and I can only imagine that O’Shaughnessy would be shaking his head, while still glad for any move in the right direction.
What about hemp and CBD?
Much like in many places, hemp was banned in Ireland for quite some time, ending in 1995. This came mainly in understanding the possible economic value of hemp. Licenses for cultivation are handed out by the Department of Health and Children, and must be renewed yearly, cultivation must take place away from public roads, and only plants containing the EU regimented max of .2% THC can be grown.
The hemp industry had not been taking off very fast, but recent developments in the overall cannabis industry, like the use of CBD, have increased demand. It was reported last year by the Irish Mirror that requests for cultivation licences to grow hemp had increased to 77 applications by July of 2019, up from 24, and seven from the two previous years. The amount grown is expected to increase fivefold to 5,000 acres from 1,000.
CBD, or cannabidiol, the more recently popular cannabinoid of the cannabis plant that doesn’t have psychoactive properties, but which has increasingly shown up in medical research as a possible antidote to a variety of medical illnesses, is legal in Ireland so long as the .2% max THC limit is upheld. However, as a medicine, it can’t actually be prescribed by a doctor because it isn’t included as a medical product under the (HPRA) Health Products Regulatory Authority.
Why Ireland could easily speed up track
One thing to remember about Ireland is that it’s a main home to the massive pharma world. In the 1950’s, in order to combat economic sluggishness, Ireland opened up its economy to global markets while introducing a low corporate tax rate of 12.5%. This did well in enticing pharmaceutical companies to set up shop there. Ireland went a step further with it, lowering the tax rate down to 6.25% for company revenue resulting from intellectual property or patents, making the deal even sweeter for big corporations.
In fact, the pharma sector has received capital investments of €1 billion per year, making it second only to Switzerland in the EU, in terms of capital investments. Not only did Ireland make it nice and comfy for these companies, but it also retooled its workforce to do higher level production work in the pharma/medical field, that way providing a tax haven of sorts, as well as skilled workers.
With cannabis companies sprouting out of the ground like blades of grass, and looking more and more like standard pharmaceutical companies, it’s not that much of a stretch to see Ireland becoming a hub for medical cannabis production facilities as well. Interest definitely seems to be building as large cannabis pharma companies like Tilray, which has its products approved for use in the Irish markets, build divisions in Ireland – in this case Tilray Ventures.
Then there’s Cronos Group, a $5.4 billion recreational cannabis company which has also started setting up shop in Ireland, despite current laws making it impossible to do anything just yet. But that sure says a lot about how Cronos sees the future of Irish recreational cannabis law. Locally, a growing amount of companies and production facilities are also popping up regarding hemp and CBD cultivation and manufacturing. Like, GreenLight Medicines, an Irish cannabis company that sold out 25% of its stake to SOL Global, a Canadian investment group in 2019, and Greenheart CBD, an Irish company locally growing CBD, whose owners hope to see the whole production market from seeds to finished products take place right in Ireland.
Even so, in order to really jump into the commercial production ring, Ireland will have to legalize the whole plant for commercial use, and allow the cultivation for medicinal cannabis (and likely recreational too) – THC and all. Perhaps this desire to keep up with what they started in the pharma world will be what helps push Irish legislation towards legalization in the end.
If the greenness of the country indicated the level of cannabis growth and acceptance, Ireland would be on top. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and Ireland has been rather strict in its weed laws, only recently making minor loosening adjustments in the way of a pilot medical cannabis program.
For a country like Ireland that already found a way to be enticing to medically oriented companies, the chance of legalization might be way stronger when looking at business models, than personal health or rights issues. In the end, if Ireland wants the money, its going to have to get that much looser, or it’ll face watching some other location become the new hub for pharma weed production.
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