Ireland has become the latest European state to approve a bill allowing for the use of medicinal cannabis. The bills’ ratification will be debated in early 2017. Ross Walsh and Orla Keaveney debate this issue head-to-head.
For: Ross Walsh
In favour of introducing medical marijuana, Ross Walsh argues that the benefits to the lives of the sick are too great to be overlooked.
THE issue of marijuana has been a near constant public debate across much of the globe for decades. Now, Ireland is set to become the latest country to legalise the use of marijuana, also called cannabis, for medical purposes. The bill was put forward by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, and some commentators predict that it will become law as soon as Easter of this year.
For some, this represents a step onto a dangerous slippery slope. For most, it is a step in the right direction towards the complete legalisation of the drug, as is the case in countries like the Netherlands. For others, it is simply a chance to improve the lives of extremely ill loved ones, where other medical avenues have failed.
An Irish poll carried out in November of last year by Red C Research on behalf of non-profit campaign group Help Not Harm showed that 92% of respondents are in favour of the legalisation of medical marijuana. Decades of research have gone into studying the effects of marijuana on the human body and mind, most notably on how the substance can be used for medical purposes.
“This makes marijuana a much safer alternative to traditional opioid based painkillers.”
Tens of thousands of papers have been published on the subject, with different studies getting different, and sometimes conflicting, results. The American ‘National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering’ recently slogged through the many papers to compile a summary report, condensing everything scientific research has learned about the health effects of marijuana.
The strongest evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana pointed towards great effectiveness in treating chronic pain. Combined with a complete absence of evidence pointing towards any risk of overdose, workplace injuries or general mortality, this makes marijuana a much safer alternative to traditional opioid-based painkillers which cause tens of thousands of deaths every year from overdose.
In Ireland, the Health Research Board has said in recent years that there has been a considerable increase in the number of deaths involving prescription medication. Alternatives, like medical marijuana, must be explored if we are to curb medication and painkiller-related overdoses.
“As with any type of drug, medical or otherwise, there are concerns with its use, and marijuana is by no means without some risks.”
There are also huge amounts of evidence that cancer patients can benefit greatly from medical marijuana, either through smoking it or through the use of products like cannabis oil. Side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, vomiting, and a near complete loss of appetite, which can all be lessened through the use of marijuana. An increase in appetite is a commonly known side effect of marijuana, colloquially referred to as “the munchies”. For those suffering from multiple sclerosis, it can also reduce muscle spasticity.
Unlike legal drugs such as tobacco, research thus far has failed to turn up any evidence linking marijuana to the development of cancer. In fact, in most areas of risk commonly pointed to by anti-legalisation campaigners marijuana is as safe as or even safer than tobacco or alcohol, both of which are legal and widely available to the public.
As with any type of drug, medical or otherwise, there are concerns with its use, and marijuana is by no means without some risks. These concerns should of course be addressed, but they do not and cannot outweigh the medical benefits that marijuana can bring to the patients of Ireland.
“Unlike legal drugs such as tobacco, research thus far has failed to turn up any evidence linking marijuana to the development of cancer.”
There is certain hysteria that seems to envelop many people at the mention of marijuana, medical or recreational. Its current status as illegal binds it into an association with criminal gangs and shady drug dealers, an association that will only be broken through legalisation.
The Government are taking a step in the right direction by allowing Gino Kenny’s bill to pass through the Dáil. They are listening to the medical and scientific research on the issue, rather than the fear-mongering of prohibitionists. With our health service in the state it is, there is no option that shouldn’t be explored to improve the lives of patients, and medical marijuana is top of the list.
REBUTTAL (Against) – Orla
CURRENT prescription medications have undeniable dangers, particularly overdose, but at the very least these are well understood. Although the strong link between psychiatric disorders and cannabis is known to the medical community doctors have no way to identify which patients are susceptible to this damage. Therefore it is even harder to know the risks involved.
Opposition to the legalisation of medicinal marijuana is often written off as paranoia by its supporters, but when the welfare of Irish citizens is at stake, safety must be prioritised over the easily influenced popular opinion. The fragile state of our health system means that this country will be particularly ill-equipped to deal with the hazards of this drug, especially as mental health funding is already stretched to the limit. For these reasons, now is not the time for Ireland to take the uninformed risk of legalising medicinal marijuana use.
Against: Orla Keaveney
Disproving the use of medical marijuana Orla Keaveney argues that it would do more harm than good.
UNLIKE household pills like paracetamol, or even prescription medication like morphine, the exact chemical components of marijuana are not standardised. Two different strains of the cannabis plant can vary as much as two different species of dog, and even more hybrids are being created by modern growers. The effects on an individual can vary hugely depending on factors such as previous experiences and tolerance, the method of ingestion, or their sensitivity to marijuana’s chemical compounds like terpenes.
Due to this inconsistency, research into the effects of marijuana does not meet the standards that we demand of pharmaceutical companies. Proving the medical benefits or harms has been stunted by its illegal status in most countries.
Scientists’ ability to study the effects of marijuana on controlled groups is limited. Much of what we hear of its effects is based on anecdotal evidence from recreational users, a biased group widely in favour of legalising the drug – it is akin to asking the opinion of a butcher when deciding whether to become a vegetarian.
“Promoting the use of marijuana for medical reasons, the government will add to the growing perception that it is a ‘harmless’ drug.”
Despite the popular perception that cannabis is not addictive, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30% of marijuana users develop a dependency disorder. Along with the paranoia and hallucinations that can occur while under the direct influence of marijuana, The Royal College of Psychiatrists has linked cannabis with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.
By promoting the use of marijuana for medical reasons, the government will add to the growing perception that it is a ‘harmless’ drug, only condemned by paranoid suburban mums who are convinced that their kids will overdose from “injecting the pot”.
With renewed faith in marijuana, more members of the public without prescriptions will be encouraged to try the drug from illegal sources. This could in turn drastically reduce users’ vigilance in ensuring that their supply is of a high quality. It would provide greater income for the criminals who bring Ireland’s marijuana supply into the country and the softening of attitudes towards drug laws could extend to more harmful, addictive substances.
While these side effects could arguably be an acceptable price to pay to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients, the lack of reliable medical research means that the benefits of legalising medicinal marijuana are by no means guaranteed to be worth the risk.
“Ireland needs… a clear plan for tackling the multifaceted problems that marijuana is likely to introduce.”
The police may crack down on illegal marijuana purchases to combat the predicted rise in the wake of this legislation. But even if these methods were effective (which, due to severe Garda shortages, is unlikely), the legalised medicinal marijuana would be easy to share with friends or family with no prescription.
While prescription drug abuse is already a serious problem, most chemical drugs come in the form of tablets or IVs, which are difficult to share. In contrast, sharing marijuana is as simple as passing around a joint.
“It is akin to asking the opinion of a butcher when deciding whether to become a vegetarian.”
Marijuana could be distributed in pill form to combat this, but besides increased expense, it would not prevent passing the drug onto third parties. Due to the limited scope of research into medical marijuana, doctors base their dosages on the patients’ analysis of their symptoms, so by exaggerating symptoms one could get enough to sell on.
Medical marijuana is a stepping-stone towards legalisation of the drug. Ireland has severe problems with abuse of legal drugs, namely alcohol. Ireland has the second-highest proportion of regular binge drinkers according to the World Health Organisation. Before throwing another drug into the mix, Ireland needs to control this issue, and have a clear plan for tackling the multifaceted problems that marijuana is likely to introduce.
The legalisation of medical marijuana in some parts of the globe will better scientists’ ability to study the effects it has. It would thus be prudent to examine those results before deciding on a course of action. Without reliable, unbiased evidence of the drug’s benefits it would be reckless and short-sighted of the government to legalise medical marijuana in this country.
REBUTTAL (For) – Ross
THERE are indeed many different strains of the cannabis plant. However, without legalisation, and therefore regulation, the chemical components of marijuana used for medical purposes cannot be standardised. Legalisation is the only way to ensure that the quality of the drug meets medical standards. As for the idea that there is a lack of reliable evidence, this is completely false. The research has been done and is available. Marijuana is effective in treating pain, alleviating the side-effects of chemotherapy, and is safer than many of the medications doctors prescribe to their patients on a daily basis. In the U.S, up to 45% of overdoses are linked to prescription medications, verses 0% for marijuana. This debate is not about some slippery slope towards letting everyone in Ireland smoke weed every day. This debate is about providing another safe, effective medical option to the patients in Ireland who are suffering right now.