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I honor the man who is willing to sink half his present repute for the
freedom to think,
‘In practical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume…. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.’- FL Young (1988)DEA Administrative Law Judge.
Thousands die each year all over the world in our hospitals due to overdose or allergic reactions to medication. The high toxicity of medicines currently in use results in unnecessary fatalities. Alcohol poisoning also causes the deaths of many globally. A fatality as a result of the toxicity of cannabis or overdose of cannabis has never been recorded. Yet it is illegal in this country to use cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes.
When one raises the issue of legalizing cannabis many people will immediately have their own perceptions or stance in the debate. There are medical, social, economic and political elements as well as the obvious legal implications. The complexity of the issue is not to be underestimated.
It is factual to state that generally in our society cannabis usage is socially accepted: for many it is as normal as going for a pint. This is not exclusive to the younger generation, who are most normally depicted as deviants regardless of their actions, but stretches through society regardless of age group. The regular usage of cannabis by a large number of people creates demand and as usage increases so does the production and trafficking. In Northern Ireland many place the blame for the supply of drugs on various paramilitary groups. Each of these groups denies all knowledge and points the finger at someone else.
If cannabis were to be legalized there would be less illegal distribution. Even with legalization of cannabis it is naïve to believe that illegal supply will cease. As illustrated by the sale of “cheap cigarettes” (illegal) on street corners and shops all over the north. The usage of cannabis is not going to be eliminated but does it have to be criminalized?
The answer from a personal perspective is no. The current ‘war on drugs’ strategy is aimed at preventing usage and restricting research.
Cannabis is criminalized as a direct consequence of the 1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act. This act was essential for the government to implement in order to facilitate the United Nations who stated that countries signing up to the convention had to provide structures of law to facilitate drugs charges – thus deeming it as a criminal offence. According to this 1971 Act marijuana is said to be of no medical value. This claim has been both nationally and internationally opposed by researchers and medical practitioners.
Many European countries have decriminalized and legalized the usage of cannabis for both recreational use and medicinal purposes. Where this has occurred, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Portugal amongst others no huge rise in use or problems where experienced. Many states in the US have also legalized cannabis for medical use but this is invalid as it is still considered a federal crime. July 2001 saw Canada added to the list of places that allow research into cannabis and also the prescription, under heavy restrictions, for medical use.
It is essential to discuss the facts and myths of cannabis before this discussion can go any further. I am not a medical researcher or practitioner therefore I rely on the research and medical opinion of others. Characteristically of any debate diversity of opinion exists. There are however some factors that have gained consensus.
Cannabis is a psychoactive drug – this is illustrated by its stimulation of certain brain receptors. It does not produce toxins to kill them as alcohol does. The American Psychiatric Association states: ‘It has the effect of slightly increasing alpha wave activity – these are associated with meditative and relaxed states often associated also with human creativity’
It is widely accepted that cannabis can affect the short-term memory both during and for a few hours after use. It has been recorded than chronic smokers can suffer impairment even after a few weeks of not using. The ‘ LA Guardia Report’ NY 19** stated that marijuana usage led to the lessening of aggressive trends and also that it inhibited anti social activity. Research has shown that cannabis is not physically addictive, it has no physiological dependency characteristics often associated with frequently prescribed medicines – painkillers, anti depressants. Cannabis is often argued to be psychologically addictive – but then are we all not addicted to something be it cannabis or buying new shoes? The addiction issue is one under serious contention between both sides of the debate.
Cannabis is also said to be a gateway for harder drug use – campaigners for legalization and also users who do not take other hard drugs dismiss this claim. The example of the Dutch partial legalization of cannabis illustrates this gateway theory to be incorrect as most users decline heroine and cocaine and there was no rise in the usage of these perceived more dangerous drugs - which incidentally regardless of high toxicity are used legally for medicinal purposes.
There are no long-term cardio vascular problems for users who do not suffer already from such problems prior to usage. As each person is different heart and body circulation can be affected. This can cause complications for those who suffer from problems as hypertension. There exists no conclusive research to verify that cannabis affects hormones or damages the reproductive system. Neither does research prove that it has any harmful immunology effects. No one will argue with the evident fact that smoking any carbon based form can result in Bronchitis, cancer of the lungs, throat and neck.
Tobacco has been argued to be more dangerous than marijuana as the latter contains no nicotine. THC is said to be a bronchial dilator opening up the lungs cleansing smoke and dirt. A reason for some believing than marijuana is not as dangerous as tobacco because it is believed a cigarette smoker would consume more. Carcinogens are present in both tobacco and cannabis and these are of main concern. Research has stated that cannabis has 4 times the carcinogens that tobacco has. This is not conclusive. If we look at the scenario of a popular means of consuming cannabis in ‘joint’ form - most likely to be mixed with tobacco – that, arguably, would be it at its most dangerous.
It is not totally harmless and excessive smoking can cause problems - e.g. of a respiratory nature. Its current ‘prohibition’ does not aid safety of users especially those who use cannabis for medicinal purposes. The prohibition of alcohol led to a non-regulated production and consumption. The same applies to cannabis. The product sold on the street is not pure and this involves unnecessary risks to those who require cannabis for medical use.
Marijuana used in medicinal circumstances can act as an analgesic – pain relief, anti-emetic – nausea, vomiting relief and as an appetite stimulant. It is used and recommended to those in cancer chemotherapy, AIDS, MS, Epilepsy, rheumatic diseases. Other uses documented are insomnia, menstrual pain, migraines, adult attention deficit disorder and glaucoma. Current research is said to have proven that cannabis could have possible neuro protection properties.
The government and its strictures and legislation on cannabis are resulting in many suffering from illnesses to be deemed as criminals. Orkney Islander Biz Ivol experienced this when his home was raided and his cannabis plants were confiscated. He grew the plants and made cannabis chocolate which was passed free of charge to other MS sufferers who use cannabis. Police took away the plants, his computer and his address book and subsequently visited and raided contacts from the sources taken from Biz’s home. This involved the raiding and the confiscation of cannabis from people bed ridden and in wheel chairs. Sufferers of MS are told to watch for stress – what are the police trying to achieve by creating a very stressful and upsetting situation?
Welcoming the recent plans to ease possession it is also recognizable that it is not decriminalization and will not go far enough to aid sufferers who require cannabis for their symptoms.
The current publications of the research on cannabis led the House of Lords to call for clinical trials “as a matter of urgency”. The British Medical Association believes that the law should be changed to allow the therapeutic use of cannabis based medicines. It does draw a distinction between certain use of cannabinoids for medicinal purposes and the misuse for recreational purposes. The BMA calls on the government to make cannabis derivatives to be more widely available on prescription.
A UK based company by the name of GW Pharmaceuticals received a license from the home office to conduct research in the medicinal uses of cannabis. They describe themselves as: ‘GW is a pharmaceutical company developing a portfolio of prescription medicines derived from cannabis to meet patient needs in a wide range of therapeutic indications’.
They are working on spray, tablet and inhaler forms of dispensing the medication. The company has carried out trials on patients and is currently on the third phase of trials. (Both in the UK and bases abroad). The company says that: ‘The day you can walk into your doctors office with a severe medical complaint and receive a prescription for legal, pure, safe and affordable cannabis based medication may only be about 2-3 yrs away” (quoted at www. ukcia.com)
Among the benefits associated with cannabis is the potential of creating a hemp industry which can be used for clothing, paper and even food. Another element of the cannabis debate is the legalization of the drug for recreational purposes. It is accepted elsewhere so why not here? What is so wrong with this natural source? Its like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden – it’s there growing but do not consume it or you will be punished for it.
The law states that the possession of cannabis is an offence and depending on the exact circumstances carries punishment from cautions to custodial sentences. 1998 UK out of a total of 120,007 drug offenders - 88, 548 were for cannabis offences – 81, 380 of these for possession of cannabis. Out of the total arrests 3% were imprisoned, 3% on community service and 3% on probation. This is a huge burden on Police and Justice System resources. A caution can take up to 3 hours and 40,572 individuals were cautioned. This amounts to 121, 716 police working hours. Arrests take around 5 hours of police time and cost around 10,000 to bring to court. The average fine for cannabis possession is forty-six pounds. This illustrates the vast resources required to carry out the law in regards to cannabis possession. (Statistics from www.ukcia.org).
In Northern Ireland 2000/2001 - 1, 266 arrests were made in reference to cannabis - a decrease on the previous year. 1, 360 recorded cannabis seizures ranging from single joints to a few substantial seizures. (Official statistics from the PSNI)
Legalizing for recreational use has its benefits. The distribution can be controlled, as alcohol and tobacco are controlled by state and often, religious laws. This would help those trying to tackle the current high usage by school aged children and young people who can often get their supply in the school itself. It will not alleviate the usage by this age group – but as with alcohol and tobacco regulation is deemed effective. Currently, however, illegal cannabis is widely available and non regulated and possibly mixed with other components that result in impurities.
The suppliers of this product, are known as drug dealers - people most would rather keep a distance from. Cannabis according to the Department of Health is the third widely used drug after alcohol and tobacco. The high numbers of people who are getting this product illegally would prefer it also if they did not have to be deemed criminals and were able to sit as they do elsewhere in Europe have a coffee and a joint, pipe, bong, foods, all within in a hygienic, safe setting. They would no longer be committing a criminal offence and police could spend their time constructively tackling issues of higher priority.
It would be a prettier site than watching drunken louts and their alcohol induced anger and hostility pour out onto the streets in the form of physical and verbal brawls. Worst-case scenario would be a race to see who could sniff out the nearest fast food outlet or get to the phone from their chairs at home and ring the local food delivery service of choice. Corner shops would have to stock up on ‘Rizlas’ of all sizes.
Anyone with an experience of having been ‘stoned’ may realize that we are not criminals, we are not junkies addicted to or going through a gateway to injecting ourselves with heroine. People who drink alcohol do not all walk around constantly drunk as neither do all cannabis users walk around constantly stoned. A person can die from the intake of too much alcohol, a person can die if they take penicillin when they are allergic, and a person can die from an overdose of aspirin. None of these scenarios exist with cannabis.
Changes are needed in the structures of law to ensure that the medicinal properties of cannabis are utilized to their full potential. The changes seem to be appearing very slowly or almost could be perceived to be as a token movement to keep campaigners at bay. I believe it will only be a matter of time before we see at least the decriminalization of cannabis. Those who require cannabis for its medicinal properties are the priority in the need for legalization “as a matter of urgency".
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