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Pike, Brigid (2014) Dáil debate on cannabis. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 49, Spring 2014, pp. 6-8.

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For the first time since 2006, Irish politicians have had a full debate on the drugs issue, specifically on a private member’s motion to regulate the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products.1 They voted 112 to 8 in favour of a government amendment that recognised the health risks associated with cannabis and its role as a ‘gateway’ drug, recognised that leniency in cannabis control could endanger overall international efforts against drugs, to which Ireland is signed up under the 1961 and 1971 UN drug conventions, and endorsed current government policy ‘to maintain strict legal controls on cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland’. 

In the next section what politicians said is described, and in the following two sections, recent research, analysis and commentary relevant to the processes of drug policy debate are discussed.
(1)              What did the politicians say?
Individual deputies contributing to the debate raised three different options – prohibition, decriminalisation or regulation.2 The arguments made in favour of the various options were as follows:
-    The current system of strict controls and regulation of cannabis should continue because of the health and social risks associated with cannabis use.
-    Cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug.
-    The balance of the greater good for society lies in continuing prohibition.
-    The current economic situation would preclude putting in place the measures to deal with the ‘excesses’ that would ensue if cannabis were legalised.
-    The benefits of legalisation would not exceed the costs.
-    Ireland would become an even bigger channel for the importation of illegal drugs to Europe.
-    Why reduce controls on drugs when controls on tobacco and alcohol are being strengthened?
-    Need to stop using prison as a means to tackle the drug issue. Most drug users do not commit crimes except the crime of possession.
-    Users found with small amounts of cannabis should not be criminalised or jailed, should not have convictions.
-    In Portugal decriminalisation has led to a reduction in drug-related deaths, with no increase in drug prevalence.
-    Decriminalising cannabis is a minimum step and a first step along the road in this debate.
-    If cannabis were to be legalised, there is as yet no assurance that the drug gangs will be tackled or that enough treatment centres, mental health services and other supports needed will be provided.
-    Given that cannabis is freely available in Ireland and its use is normalised (over 7% of the population regularly use cannabis), the situation should be regulated so that cannabis users are not criminalised and criminals do not profit from the market in cannabis.
-    Public opinion supports regulation of the cannabis market.
-    The health risks have not been conclusively proven.
-    Regulation of recreational and medicinal cannabis use is happening elsewhere in the world. 
(2)           What could the politicians have said?
The Dáil record of the recent debate on cannabis regulation indicates that while deputies acknowledge the importance of ensuring their policy arguments are consistent with scientific evidence, there is a need for more systematic and careful reading of the evidence, and more rigorous analysis of the policy options.  
Reading the evidence
In referring to the scientific evidence, deputies both for and against the cannabis regulation motion tended to cite single, isolated items of research that supported their perception of the risks associated with using cannabis, particularly health-related risks such as dependence, respiratory problems, lung and throat cancers, heart disease, strokes, epilepsy, a range of mental illnesses, impaired development in young people, and reduced fertility. Regarding the whole body of scientific evidence, four US public policy academics have argued in a recent publication:3 ‘The hard truth is that the scientific community has not reached a consensus on many of these questions so both sides of the legalization debate can refer to published studies that support their arguments and claim that the other side is ignoring the science. But the uncertainties are important.’ (pp.54–55; emphasis added.)
The authors identify two critical uncertainties:
-    Marijuana is not a standardised commodity: The level of THC and other cannabinoids in the marijuana used by research subjects will vary and may influence the outcomes of interest; moreover, the amount of marijuana consumed by research subjects and over what time period will also vary, making it difficult to make comparisons across studies.
-    Causality as distinct from correlation: In many studies, it has proved difficult to determine conclusively whether marijuana caused the negative consequences or just happened to be correlated with them.
Marijuana’s status as a ‘gateway drug’ is given as an example of ‘uncertainty’ with regard to causality. While young people who use marijuana, especially when they start at a young age, are statistically more likely to go on to use other drugs than their peers who do not use, the authors ask whether this means that marijuana causes the subsequent drug use or does it simply signal the risk of subsequent drug use, owing to other factors such as underlying social, psychological or even physiological factors. In a further twist of uncertainty, the authors also point out that because a causal connection is not needed to explain the observed correlation does not mean that there is no causal connection.
In citing scientific evidence, the authors also advise that the validity and reliability of the research must be assured. Was the research design sound? Was the sample size large enough and the timespan of the study long enough to ensure reliable findings? Were appropriate analytical tools applied to the data?
Analysing the options
Expressing their personal preferences in the Dáil debate – for prohibition, decriminalisation or regulation – deputies generally justified their choice by pointing to risks that need to be avoided or to changing circumstances that need to be responded to. They tended not to explain their preference in terms of a policy framework or an overall rationale. In recent years, drug policy researchers have proposed a range of such frameworks and rationales, for example maximising the public good, treating the drugs issue as a governance rather than a criminal issue, or addressing the drugs issue as part of equality policy.4 The advantages of such frameworks are that they shift the debate away from the polarised and increasingly unproductive debate between prohibition on the one hand and legalisation/regulation on the other, and they also introduce an analytical rigour, which arguably leads to greater transparency and accountability.
To give an example of how an explicit policy framework can enhance the calibre of the policy debate by making explicit the logical underpinning: In the course of the Dáil debate, a number of deputies who were opposed to changing the law on cannabis raised a conundrum, why relax controls on illicit drugs when simultaneously strengthening controls on licit substances such as tobacco and alcohol? One possible answer has been provided by proponents of a public health and human rights-based policy framework as a basis for thinking about cannabis.5 Alcohol, tobacco and cannabis have all been available in unregulated markets, be they legal or illegal markets, with little regard to public health or human rights: to strengthen public health and human rights outcomes, all three markets should be strictly regulated by law (see graphic).



Source: TDPF (2013) How to regulate cannabis: a practical guide, p.26.
What the ‘experts’ said
To underline the uncertainty and complexity of the issues around marijuana, the four US public policy experts whose work is discussed above took the unusual step of each writing their own conclusion to their joint book on the pros and cons of legalising marijuna.3 They all favoured a shift away from complete prohibition but varied in how far they would relax controls and how fast.
Hawken: ‘Given already widespread use among adults and kids, the enormous costs of marijuana prohibition, and the inconsistencies in our drug laws, it seems worthwhile to experiment with legalization in the United States. … [Having allowed for experimentation with different legal regimes at state level, and having adjusted taxes and controls on alcohol and tobacco markets] I would then support removing the federal ban on marijuana, and managing marijuana with regulations similar to those that apply to alcohol. This would mean strict licensing rules for production and sales, controls on advertising and product labelling, penalties for negative behaviours following use, and taxes high enough to avoid spikes in use.’ (p.236)
Caulkins: ‘I would vote against legalizing marijuana. Most of what people dislike about the current prohibition can be fixed by reforming prohibition and/or pursuing “middle path” options. Among middle path options, decriminalization plus home growing and sharing (with or without user co-ops but without commercial production and sale) strikes me as having particular advantages for shrinking the black market.’ (p.238)
Kleiman: ‘My first choice [among (1) prohibition, (2) decriminalisation, (3) permission to grow, (4) legalisation without commercialisation, (5) controlled commercialisation, and (6) lightly controlled commercialisation] is permission for production and use through small not-for-profit cooperatives, with a ban on commerce [i.e. option 4].’ (pp.243–4)
Kilmer: ‘Whatever you do, incorporate a sunset provision. … Given the weak knowledge base, it is risky to implement the most extreme alternative to prohibition. … Incremental approaches that experiment with different combinations of activities relating to marijuana [i.e. (1) possession of small amounts, (2) non-profit production and sharing in private homes or small co-operatives, (3) retail sales, (4) commercial and/or government production, and (5) advertising and promotion] are inherently less risky than implementing them all at the same time.’ (pp.246–7) (Brigid Pike)
(1)           Are politicians part of the problem or the solution?
The two previous sections of this report on the recent Dáil debate on cannabis regulation discussed what was said in the debate, and how the deputies might have raised the calibre of their contributions. In this final section, recent research into how politicians can influence the development of drug policy is described. Several themes have emerged from this research:
-    Drug policy goals may be clearly enunciated but are they an accurate statement of what politicians really intend? Do all people, groups, agencies share a common view of the benefits and the harms associated with a specific drug policy? It is suggested that the motives of the ‘political élites’ that control the policy process are obscure, making it difficult to accurately assess whether their policies are succeeding or failing.6
-    Concepts used to debate the drugs issue may not change over long periods but what is meant by the conceptual terms may well change. They are ‘political tools’ which can be manipulated to respond to changing moral climates and circumstances. The entrance of new actors into the policy debate, for example not only politicians but also experts, administrators and drug users, will influence the negotiation and agreement of shared conceptual understandings.7
-    Language is the basis on which policy problems are constructed and represented. The resulting ‘discursive constructions’ have implications for how policy responses are understood and justified. By changing the language of policy, politicians can reframe the ‘problem’; for example, shifting from talking about drug use to drug harms, or away from talking about abuse or misuse can alter the impact of a drug policy.8
-    Grand narratives, comprising story lines and symbolic devices, are used by politicians to paint a picture of just what the ‘drug problem’ is at any particular time. The choice of issues is framed by a heady mix of evidence, moral and ethical values, ideologies, mass media coverage, public opinion and political opportunism. To achieve a more rational approach, in which evidence and logic prevail, ‘exceptional leadership’ is required and the drugs issue needs to be positioned in a broader policy context such as health, inequality or  poverty.9          
-    Political games The drug issue tends to be used as a weapon in political games, e.g. shoring up one’s own ideological position while undermining that of an opponent, and in electioneering. In such a political climate, scientific evidence and calm appraisal lose out, or are distorted by underpinning values and political interests.10
Only twice have Irish politicians taken the wheel in formulating Ireland’s drug policy, in 1983/4 and 1996/7.11 On both occasions, the Ministers of State tasked with developing government policy delivered the boldest, most radical and most innovative policy proposals in the history of Irish drug policy.  Government strategies produced at other times, by teams of either ‘experts’ or government officials, have tended to be more conservative, consolidating existing policy positions, ‘building on experience’. Perhaps in 2016, when the current National Drugs Strategy expires and the task of drafting a combined drug and alcohol strategy arises, when the UN General Assembly holds its first Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs since 1998, and 20 years after the last ministerial task force on drugs was convened, it will be time for Irish politicians once again to take a turn at the wheel.


1. Cannabis regulation: motion [Private Members] (2013, 5–6 November) Parliamentary Debates Dáil Éireann (Official report: unrevised), Vol. 819/1, pp.91–111 & Vol. 819/2, pp.846–869.
2. For a discussion of previous Dáil debates on the drugs issue, see Pike B (2012) Politicians and the drugs debate – six years on. Drugnet Ireland, (41): 10, and Pike B (2006) Politicians and the drugs debate. Drugnet Ireland, (19): 16–17.
3. Caulkins JP, Hawken A, Kilmer B and Kleiman MAR (2012) Marijuana legalization: what everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. For a brief outline of these frameworks, see Pike B (2012) To prohibit or not to prohibit – that is no longer the question. Drugnet Ireland, (41): 7–8.
5. Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) (2013) How to regulate cannabis: a practical guide. London: TDPF. The authors set out a policy framework comprised of six broad aims: protecting and improving public health, reducing drug-related crime, improving security and development, protecting the young and vulnerable, protecting human rights, and providing good value for money.
6. Friedman SR, Mateu-Gelabert P and Rossi D (2012) Has United States drug policy failed? And how could we know? Substance Use and Misuse, 47(13–14): 1402–1405.
7. Edman J and Stenius K (2013) Conceptual carpentry as problem handling: the case of drugs and coercive treatment in social democratic welfare regimes. International Journal of Drug Policy,; Houborg E (2012) The political pharmacology of methadone and heroin in Danish drug policy. Contemporary Drug Problems,39(1): 155–192.
8. Lancaster K and Ritter A (2014) Examining the construction and representation of drugs as a policy problem in Australia’s National Drug Strategy documents 1985–2010. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(1): 81–87.
9.MacGregor S (2013) Barriers to the influence of evidence on policy: are politicians the problem? Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 20(3): 225–233.
10.Edman J (2013) An ambiguous monolith – the Swedish drug issue as a political battleground 1965–1981. International Journal of Drug Policy,24(5): 464–470; Tieberghien J and Decorte T (2013) Understanding the science–policy nexus in Belgium: an analysis of the drug policy debate (1996–2003). Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 20(3): 241–248.
11. For detailed accounts of Ireland’s drug policy since the 1960s, see Butler S (2001) Alcohol, drugs and health promotion in modern Ireland. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, and Pike B (2008) Development of Ireland’s drug strategy 2000–2007. HRB Overview Series 8. Dublin: Health Research Board.


Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 49, Spring 2014
April 2014
Page Range
pp. 6-8
Health Research Board
Issue 49, Spring 2014
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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