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Cannabis legal row obscured in the fog

Thursday, October 3, 2019

As published in the Irish Examiner, September 23 2019.

Cannabis, marijuana, hemp, weed, pot… Different names, among many, to describe a plant that’s been a ubiquitous part of western culture for at least the past 60 years.  From the hippie counterculture of the 1960s to the lyrics of rap and pop music today. But what’s the current Irish legal position?

It seems you can’t pick up a newspaper or open a browser these days without coming across a discussion about cannabis. Patients calling for greater access and talk of legalisation vie with contrasting headlines about Gardaí raids on coffee shops and doctors warning of potential risks.

From a business perspective, mention is made of significant opportunities in a growth area. This past summer saw Teagasc and the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) organise the first Irish conference aimed at explaining to farmers the benefits of cultivating industrial hemp.

Minister of State for Natural Resources Séan Canney previously confirmed that Bord na Móna is considering growing medicinal cannabis on bogland in the midlands. This multitude of differing headlines can be confusing. What’s the big deal? Hasn’t cannabis been legalised elsewhere? The answer is more complicated than it may appear.

To understand the issue, we need to look at the underlying complexity of the plant itself. The two main components of cannabis with reported clinical benefits are cannabidiol — commonly called CBD — and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

Both components naturally occur in the plant and our legal system applies different consequences to each, primarily on the basis that THC has psychoactive effects as a hallucinogen — whereas CBD, on its own, does not.

In simple legal terms, we treat THC as bad and CBD as good, though the reality is much more complicated.  At this point we need to distinguish between three different issues: the medicinal use of cannabis, the general use of cannabis in other products — usually food supplements — and the recreational use of cannabis, which is entirely prohibited.

The conflation of these issues, whether in the mind of politicians or consumers, is a real problem. From a legal perspective, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. All three issues should be considered separately.

Turning first to medicinal cannabis, the Minister for Health signed the Medical Cannabis Access Programme into law in June on a pilot basis for five years. The programme is designed to facilitate access for patients to cannabis-based products containing THC. There are, however, strict limitations to the programme. Prescribed cannabis-based products are considered a last resort.

Prescription products which contain only CBD don’t require any form of specific licencing. But they must go through a general approval procedure for medicinal products, showing clear medical benefits based on scientific studies.

The other primary use of cannabis is as a food supplement. It’s in this context that CBD oil has attracted a significant following in pharmacies and health shops from consumers, young and old, who swear by its benefits in treating ailments from arthritis and insomnia to depression and pain relief.

Again, a complicated legal regime applies to these products. The European Commission allows cultivation of the “cannabis sativa” plant with THC below 0.2% — a level at which there is no potential harm to human health. The Department of Health licences this regime in Ireland, allowing farmers to grow the cannabis plant — specifically, its industrial hemp strain — in line with EU rules.

But here’s the problem. Any product which contains even a trace element of THC, exceeding 0.2%, is prohibited due to a strict ban on THC which is contained in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977.

This shows a clear disconnect between EU rules around cultivating cannabis and hemp, and their use in products in Ireland. The current legal regime is not fit for purpose and needs to be urgently addressed.

Finally, not all CBD oils are created equally. Those made using traditional methods, such as cold pressing, can be freely sold in Ireland. But the majority of CBD oils are CO2 extracted and then mixed with a carrier liquid such as coconut or olive oil. These latter products require authorisation as a “novel food” before they can be placed on the market.

In short, cannabis and CBD-based products may seem the new El Dorado to many entrepreneurs, but caution needs to be exercised to ensure businesses stay on the right side of the law.

For further information on the above article, please contact Ronan Dunne.



Ronan Dunne