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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 5 Nov 2013

Vol. 819 No. 1

Cannabis Regulation: Motion [Private Members]

I call Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan who is sharing time with Deputies Boyd Barrett, Maureen O'Sullivan, Pringle, Mattie McGrath and Healy-Rae. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan will have 18 minutes, Deputies Boyd Barrett, Maureen O'Sullivan, Pringle and Mattie McGrath will have five minutes each and Deputy Healy-Rae will have two minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to introduce legislation to regulate the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland.

This motion relates to the legalisation of cannabis and I wish to take this opportunity to thank a few people who helped me in respect of it. I refer to Dr. Cathal Ó Súiliobháin and Mr. Stuart Clark, who are both members of the board of NORML Ireland, Dr. Garrett McGovern, Mr. Patrick Fitzpatrick and all the other people who provided assistance.

When I raised this issue a couple of weeks ago, one of the first things media organisations said was that it is not really that important. I decided to carry out a search of the website of one of the media organisations in questions to discover the number of times it had used the word "cannabis". When I carried out the search, the figure 3,200 appeared on my computer screen. One would imagine that if the issue were not important, then the organisation to which I refer would not mention it that often. In that context, it mentioned the word "troika" on 2,200 occasions. If it is not that important, I would love to know why the organisation's employees are obsessed with writing about it.

I am advocating the control, standardisation, legitimisation and taxation of cannabis. I recognise the fact that it is freely available. Those are not my words but rather those of Deputy Emmet Stagg from the Labour Party. I agree with the Deputy 100%. It is no longer radical to state that cannabis should be legalised. One of the major pointers in this regard is a Gallup poll conducted in the United States of America in the past week which shows that 58% of correspondents stated that they are of the view that cannabis should be legalised. Last year, the figure was 48%. A turning point has been reached in respect of this issue across the globe. A poll conducted by in the past week shows that more than 80% of those who participated agree that cannabis should be legalised. The percentage in favour of legalisation is not the only remarkable aspect. The other remarkable thing is the number of people - more than 40,000 - who participated in the poll. I found it ironic that some of those who oppose the legalisation of cannabis rubbished this poll on the basis that those who smoke or otherwise use cannabis were more motivated to participate in it. That is interesting because the same individuals claim that those who use cannabis suffer from motivation problems. This is strange because if those to whom I refer are actually correct, then the figure would be higher than 80%.

When one scans the websites of The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and for articles on this subject, one will discover that the people of Ireland are actually ready for legalisation. I would not be that confident that the Members of Dáil Éireann are ready for it but then again it would not be the first time we might be somewhat slow to realise what the public wants. The websites of the three publications to which I refer contain more than 1,000 comments on this matter and - from my reading of it - fewer than 50 of those who posted are opposed to legalisation. We are faced with a situation where an issue is still being described as being radical by many people in Dáil Éireann at a time when the majority of the public appears to be on board with what is being suggested.

The matter does not end there. All one needs do is visit Deputy Carey's Facebook page in order to discover that this is the case. Great credit is due to the Deputy because he asked people what they thought of the Bill I have drafted. He could have left the matter alone or avoided asking the question but he did not do so. I congratulate him on that. I wonder if the Deputy was surprised by the reaction he received. As has been the case for the past two weeks, I was surprised. I was expecting to be politically beaten up at home as a result of what I am doing because I was of the view that it would not be that popular. My view, however, was so be it. I am increasing the number of likes on Deputy Carey's Facebook page as the seconds go by. If Members visit the page, they will discover that 230 comments have been made. The majority of these show that those who made them are in favour of legalising cannabis. Deputy Carey has informed his Facebook followers that he will listen. I hope he will do so.

NORML Ireland, which was launched this week in Buswells Hotel, is further proof that this debate is going mainstream. Two of the members of the board of NORML Ireland are practising GPs who have many years experience in the field of addiction treatment. Another member of the board is journalist Stuart Clark, who does not use cannabis and who has no interest in it. Even further proof that the debate is going mainstream is that Tom Lloyd, the former head of Cambridgeshire police force, has travelled to Ireland twice in the past week in order to support what is being done. However, I was a little surprised when he described me on my local radio station as being a little conservative for his liking. This man spent his entire life trying to prevent people from obtaining cannabis and other illegal substances. At this stage, the penny has dropped. The current system does not work. Mr. Lloyd, who operates in this area and who was employed by Scotland Yard for several years, accepts that it does not work.

If ever anyone wanted proof that talk of legalisation is not radical, they should listen to what I am about to say. The Labour Party discussed whether to decriminalise or legalise cannabis at its annual convention in November 2007 but referred the matter to its national executive for further discussion. Putting cannabis on the party agenda was the handiwork of the party Whip, Deputy Stagg, who has long been a proponent of legalisation. The article on this matter to which I am referring states:

Ireland has some of the highest cannabis use rates in Europe, Stagg noted. He does not wish to encourage cannabis use, he said; only to regularize a drug that is readily available across the country. Leaving the weed illegal creates criminality and drives young people into the hands of drug dealers, he said.

I could not agree with Deputy Stagg more. He also stated, "I'm advocating its control, standardization, legitimization and taxation." It gets better. The article goes on to state:

But after contentious debate, the party voted to defer a decision [kicking the can down the road again, something it is good at] on adopting legalization or decriminalization as part of the platform. By a narrow margin, and following the lead of former party leader Pat Rabbitte [I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say about this matter], delegates voted to refer the matter to the National Executive for further discussion. While [Deputy] Rabbitte urged caution at the conference, he did say that policymakers need to be thinking outside the box when it comes to cannabis.

Deputy Rabbitte will be pleased, no doubt, that I have brought forward this motion and perhaps he will participate in the debate on it.

If more proof were needed that it is not radical to suggest that cannabis be legalised, it can be found in the USA. The latter is a country the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny loves - he thinks it is wonderful and posteriors are regularly kissed when he visits the place - so obviously he would agree with some of its policies. In the past year, cannabis has been legalised in the states of Colorado and Washington. Imagine that, Washington in the US of A. We will be expecting the Taoiseach to follow suit any time, particularly as he always thinks the Americans are right. The amazing aspect of the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado and Washington relates to the fact that it was not followed up by any sanctions from the federal Government. I had expected such sanctions to be forthcoming, as had people in Colorado and Washington. However, they did not materialise. This is because the penny has also dropped with Barack Obama. I find it bizarre that it took so long for Mr. Obama to reach this realisation, particularly as he has been quite open about the fact that he regularly used cannabis when he was younger. Things have changed and several other states are set to follow the example of Colorado and Washington. In fact, a plebiscite is being held in Portland, Oregon, in respect of the legalisation of cannabis in that city. God forbid the Government here would have confidence in members of the general public to make decisions of that nature for themselves. It is a pity that is the case because I am of the view that they already have made the decision in respect of this matter.

Uruguay has legalised cannabis and many south and central American countries, including Mexico, are examining the possibility of doing likewise. Uruguay would not have taken this course of action were it not for the previous decision of the United States. We must remember that the US is the nation with the biggest guns, drones and whatever else one uses to hit others. When the United States of America, which wields the biggest stick, decided it was all right to decriminalise cannabis Uruguay believed it was okay to follow suit. Uruguay would have taken the decision sooner if the United States had gone down the road of decriminalisation earlier.

As regards Europe, Deputies will be aware that cannabis has been decriminalised in the Netherlands. In the past week, however, comments made by senior Dutch politicians point towards outright legalisation. The position that obtains in the Netherlands is not clear to many people in this country because the Irish media, which are made up of a wonderful group of people, reported about a year ago that the country was about to ban foreigners from its coffee shops and require people to join clubs if they wished to have access to cannabis. Despite widely reporting that proposal, the media did not report widely on the decision by the Dutch not to implement it. To this day, people ask me how we could legalise cannabis when the Dutch are backtracking on the issue. People should check the facts because the Netherlands is doing anything but backtracking.

Does Australia impose the same type of penal sanctions for cannabis use as we do? Cannabis in small amounts has been decriminalised for personal use in the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

In Belgium, the possession and cultivation of small quantities of cannabis, namely, 3g or one female plant, are tolerated, although they remain illegal. A similar position pertains in the Czech Republic, although the amounts involved are higher - possession of 15g of cannabis or the cultivation of up to five plants are now considered only misdemeanours.

The Germans are the most hard-working people in Europe, or so they keep telling us. The amount of cannabis one can possess for personal use varies in Germany, depending on the state, with Berlin being the most accommodating, at 15g. The German economy is doing well and the country's citizens have not become apathetic or demotivated - quite the opposite.

In Barcelona, one can join a cannabis social club whose members may legally purchase cannabis on a not-for-profit basis.

In light of these facts, it is not radical to suggest we should legalise cannabis. That 58% of people in the United States want to legalise the substance suggests legalisation is a slightly conservative proposal, one which would go down well with members of the Fine Gael Party.

What should we do? The Government needs to regulate and the purpose of the motion is to ask it to do so. If it refuses to regulate, I will introduce First Stage of the cannabis regulation Bill on Thursday and we will start all over again. The purpose of the Bill would be to provide for the regulation of cannabis for recreational and medicinal use and the establishment by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, of a cannabis regulation authority. Bad as the Minister is, it definitely would be better to have him administering the system than John Gilligan. The role of the authority would be to regulate the cultivation, sale, labelling, advertising and marketing of cannabis. It would also provide for a licensing system for commercial, home and cannabis social club cultivation under its control.

The Minister would establish a cannabis research institute to conduct or commission research in respect of cannabis and educate members of the public on the effects of cannabis. The Bill would allow for the provision of a licence for home cultivation, with the maximum allowable number of plants set at six female plants. Personal possession of up to one ounce or 28.35g would be allowed in the case of an individual who does not possess a grower's licence. Given the dominance of the European Union, the Government would probably shoot down that proposal on the basis that I have used imperial measurements. I would be happy, however, if it opted for the metric measurement.

The Bill would introduce the cannabis social club model under which clubs would supply their members with cannabis on a not-for-profit basis in a community setting. In other words, a grower would be able to produce cannabis for up to 50 people and grow up to 300 plants. Some people may ask why people would not grow their own cannabis plants. Alcohol is not difficult to brew but people still do not want to brew it because they like convenience. Under the Bill, licences granted for the sale of cannabis would include wholesale, retail store, medicinal retail, coffee shop and social club licences.

Children would not be allowed on premises associated with cannabis and it would remain an offence for children to possess the substance. This raises an important issue. I am no longer discussing whether cannabis should be legalised because this debate has moved on to how we would legalise it. In that context, many people have asked me whether it is a good idea to criminalise children. This question needs to be examined.

Under my Bill, advertising rules would be stricter than those which currently apply to alcohol advertising and would be strictly prohibited in the area of sport. This is consistent with my view on the advertising of any mind altering substances, including alcohol and caffeine, in the area of sport.

The legislation would require the Minister for Justice and Equality to assess the agricultural benefits of the use of hemp. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine could do likewise. The suit I am wearing is made from hemp, a substance we could grow and around which we could develop an industry.

Under the Bill, the cannabis regulation authority would be accountable to Dáil select committees. Let us compare that proposal with the current position. To whom are John Gilligan or the "Love/Hate" character, Nidge, responsible? They are certainly not accountable to select committees.

Over the next two days of debate, I look forward to hearing the views of other Deputies, especially those who have admitted to using cannabis. It will be interesting to learn if they believe they should have a criminal record given the dire consequences acquiring a criminal record has for individuals. More than 100,000 people convicted of possession of cannabis are denied the right to a decent job because their application will be rejected if they fill it out truthfully. This means they cannot become teachers, doctors or child care workers.

I have a warning for those who believe it is all right to impose a criminal record for using cannabis, while not having one imposed on themselves. After this debate, I will contact the Garda Síochána to inform it of the past actions of particular Deputies. I ask them to think carefully before criminalising others.

I commend Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan on tabling the motion and the tremendous work he has done in drafting the Bill he is likely to present to the House in the coming days. The Deputy deserves the commendation of the House for having the political courage and determination to take up an issue that even those who privately and, in some cases, publicly agree with him would not choose to bring before the House or fight out publicly as he is doing. He is showing considerable political courage and principle.

I hope the Government will take the issue seriously and engage properly in the debate. The onus is on it to make a case for rejecting the proposals made by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and others who argue that we should either decriminalise or legalise cannabis.

I do not see the argument for maintaining the criminalisation of cannabis use. I do not see what case can be put forward.

I will be interested to hear what the opponents of the motion say. I presume it has something to do with health. Let us put a simple fact on the record: there has never been a death in Ireland attributable to cannabis use, not one. "Drugs" is a broad, catch all and almost meaningless term. In what is put under the banner of the label "drugs", virtually every other item leads to deaths, many of which are attributable to the use of those things. We know about deaths due to the smoking of cigarettes, deaths due to the excessive use of alcohol, not to mention family violence, relationship break-up, violence in the community and deaths on the road. We know prescription drugs can potentially be very dangerous. There are serious question marks over the long-term use of antidepressants even though they are prescribed to thousands of people. Painkillers can be bought over the counter but can potentially have serious adverse effects on people's health. Cannabis, of all the substances under the general heading, has not been responsible for a single death. That is not to say cannabis is always good although it is clear there are medicinal uses. Of all the things loosely called drugs, the least harmful is cannabis. If the Government is going to be consistent in how it deals with the drugs issue, unless the Government bans alcohol, cigarettes and antidepressants, one cannot sustain the position of keeping cannabis use criminal.

The biggest adverse impact of cannabis use relates to the fact that it is criminalised. This pushes cannabis users and producers into the criminal world in which they would otherwise not be. In so far as there are damaging, worrying, social impacts of cannabis use, they are almost exclusively related to the fact it is illegal. We know how the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s spawned the growth of the mafia, with damage to American society for decades afterwards. It seems obvious that the same applies here. I would like to hear what the Government has to say but it seems that, at the very least, it should accept the motion and allow the Bill to pass to the next stage to begin a serious, adult discussion about this important social issue.

Ceapaim go bhfuil sé riachtanach agus tábhachtach an díospóireacht a tosnú anois. I acknowledge the work and passion of Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan on this topic. I see it as part of a much wider debate and tonight should be the start of it. We should look at drugs, alcohol, addiction, treatment, prevention, education, health, crime, harm reduction and decriminalising. The legalising aspect is a more complex area. Starting the debate is vital. In 2009, the Latin American commission on drugs and democracy called for the international community to break the taboo. It was echoed in the 2011 global commission on drugs policy calling for an open debate. In 2016, a special session at the United Nations General Assembly will be held on drugs and drug policy. Ireland should be ready for that and part of it involves a systematic, independent objective evaluation of our drugs strategy and the views of people in the country on drugs. I hope tonight is the start of that debate.

The debate must be honest and based on evidence from quality research. When I looked at Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's Bill, my reaction was that it was innocuous and mild, with a set of guidelines that are stricter than the guidelines for alcohol. It takes the control of the cannabis market out of the hands of criminals and is not leading to a free for all. E-mails tell us 150,000 people use cannabis and we seem to have received e-mails from practically all of them at this point.

The point borne out by research and the drug prevalence survey carried out by the national advisory committee on drugs in 2010 and 2011 is that these people are adult, educated and generally middle class. They are an informed group of people who can make choices and decisions rationally. I can see why there is support for it and, if it was followed in that way, I too could support it. However, I come from a constituency that has suffered from drugs more than any other in Ireland. I cannot divorce what is happening in this Bill from what I see in the constituency. The drug takers in my constituency are a particular cohort - young, male, and early school leavers with poor employment records. Many come from dysfunctional families and are not in a position to make rational and informed decisions about their drugs of choice. My views come from that background and from the fact that I chaired the north inner city drugs task force and the group for the young people's facilities and services fund, which looks at targeted responses to communities most at risk of drug addiction and misuse. My views also come from active involvement in projects working on the ground with those in addiction and their families.

In the inner city, we are seeing a different type of cannabis to the type described by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. It is cannabis used by a cohort of those under 18 years. It has a different strength and is being grown in skunk factories. The chemical make-up is completely different from what Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan describes. Projects in the inner-city are seeing the negative impacts of it on the mental health of young people and on their behaviour. I acknowledge that some is being taken in conjunction with alcohol and tablets but the pressure on some of these projects, particularly those working with people under 18 years of age, is to find cannabis detox due to the strength of this drug. Due to its strength, it is a gateway drug to other drugs, tablets and cocaine and heroin. The Bill applies to those over 18 and one of the unintended consequences is that those under 18 years become a further target and we will see increased targeting of them. The citywide drug campaign had a recent conference and posed the question of whether we can take anymore. The answer was "No". There is an active campaign to make the drugs crisis a political and public priority.

The community and voluntary sector are most active with people in addiction and it is seeing considerable costs. I would like to see us examine the decriminalising aspect and to stop using prison as a means to tackle the drug issue. Most drug users do not commit crimes except the crime of possession. That is not to deny the link between crime and cocaine, crystal meth and heroin. The decriminalising debate must follow this debate. In Portugal, it led to a reduction in drug-related deaths with no increase in drug prevalence. Portugal also put more resources into rehab and treatment. Alcohol has devastating effects and its misuse is far more costly than any other drug. The debate on drugs must take that into account. We also need safer injecting rooms and we must take into account the methadone protocol.

Drug abuse began in the inner city. Nobody acknowledged it, addressed it, or addressed the social conditions from which it came. I cannot look at this debate separate from the wider debate having followed in the footsteps of the late Tony Gregory and the work he did. It is the beginning of a debate and I hope it continues in an open way.

I commend Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan on tabling a Private Members' motion. This is one of the many reasons he got involved in politics. He believes passionately in the need to legalise cannabis to improve the availability of choice for people who wish to use cannabis but also for safety reasons and to have a structured and targeted response to tackling and preventing the addiction problems associated with it.

It is an important debate and one that we need to have. I welcome the fact that we are having it tonight and I hope it continues.

We should decriminalise cannabis as a minimum step and as a first step along the road in this debate. As has been mentioned already, according to the evidence on the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use in Portugal, it has had an impact in reducing addiction levels and the number of drug-related deaths. That is something we should debate, and we should move towards decriminalisation.

The debate on the regulation of cannabis is something for which the public is ready. It is something we should discuss. It would be worthwhile if what came out of this motion was that we could devise a system that would effectively control the strength and distribution of cannabis and provide for education on addiction and misuse, because that is something that we need to address. We need to ensure that if we regulate cannabis, it is regulated in a way that we can control.

If we were having this debate about alcohol and we were looking at regulating alcohol today, we certainly would not regulate it in the way in which its use has evolved in society over the past couple of thousand years. We would have a debate that was different and we would be looking at alcohol in a different way. When we look at the addiction that alcohol causes and the toll of alcohol addiction across society, we can see that we have to be very careful about unintended consequences and the possibility, if we regulate cannabis use, that of opening up a similar addiction problem. There is no doubt that alcohol addiction is causing significant problems across society. I and every family in Ireland have personal experience of alcohol addiction and alcohol abuse and know the havoc that it can wreak. I do not believe that cannabis addiction would be as severe if cannabis was regulated properly from the start, but it is interesting that the 2013 bulletin of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol stated that 9% of recent cannabis users were classified as being dependent on cannabis. That is based on 3% of the population who are regular users, which is quite a low figure, but that could be because of the difficulty in accessing cannabis for use. If we can devise a system that will allow cannabis to be controlled effectively and provide education on the use and misuse of cannabis, the legislation referred to in the motion could be worthwhile. This is something that we need to look at.

As has been outlined already, we also must consider the fact that prohibition has not worked. It never will work. While there is prohibition of cannabis, we have no control over the strength of cannabis that is available on the streets to young people, and that is a serious problem.

I note that recently in Holland there was talk of controlling the strength of cannabis available in the coffee shops so that it would not contain more than 15% tetrahydrocannabinol, THC. If we regulated it here in this country, we could definitely provide for lower concentrations. That is something that would be worth considering as well. We probably have to tackle this issue. We must at least decriminalise cannabis. We should be looking seriously at regulation and control, but in a way that ensures we can get it right.

I too welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion calling for legislation. It is important that we debate such issues as legalising the use of currently banned substances such as cannabis. It is time that we had a mature debate. I compliment Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan on his introduction of the proposal at this time. In spite of the fact that I told him privately some weeks ago that I am opposed to it, I commend him on bringing it forward for debate.

The proportion of adults who reported using cannabis at some point in their lives increased from 17% in 2002-2003 to 22% in 2006-2007. The proportion of young adults who reported using cannabis in their lifetime also increased, from 24% in 2002-2003 to 29% in 2006-2007. That is a steady increase and we have to sit up and take note of those figures. There is nothing to suggest that the trend has decreased and it is important, as I stated at the outset, that we have a national conversation on this issue.

There is also an extensive international debate about the merits or otherwise of introducing legislation to decriminalise the use of cannabis and we must be mindful of what happens in the European Union and the wider world. With modern technology and modern methods of transportation, we are never too far away from issues. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and, like the ostrich, hope something will go away. It will not. It is a new world in which we live and it is ever more penetrating.

After reviewing some of the research in this area - not extensively, but as a parent - and having spoken to the medical profession, especially those involved in the mental health area, I am unconvinced that legislating for the use of cannabis is right at this point in time. There are significant problems in the mental health area as it is and the system cannot cope. It is a pity the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has just left, because she is responsible for that area. The other junior Minister who is here is not covering that area. None the less, there are gaping holes in the mental health services, especially for those in rural areas. I refer to my own area of south Tipperary and the closure of St. Michael's in Clonmel.

From the perspectives of both policing and mental health, on balance, the argument is against making cannabis more readily available at this point in time. Only a few weeks ago, in reference to what my colleague Deputy Boyd Barrett stated earlier, the Dublin Coroner's Court was told by a consultant stroke physician, Professor Joseph Harbison, that doctors at St. James's Hospital had seen five or six cases of young people having strokes following the use of herbal cannabis in the past three years. Professor Harbison stated that the heavy use of high-potency cannabis is putting young people at risk.

The National Drug Advisory and Treatment Centre tells us that although many consider cannabis to be a relatively safe drug, new research shows that long-term users can find it hard to control their use of the drug and may become addicted. Indeed, we have seen that with alcohol.

Smoking cannabis increases the risk of heart disease and cancers such as lung cancer and may also affect fertility. Cannabis use may trigger schizophrenia in vulnerable persons. I referred to the lack of availability of mental health treatment. There is loneliness out there and issues associated with mental health. It is not the right time. There are too many pressures. In a time of already restricted spending on mental health services, I can find no way to justify the legalisation of a substance that already causes grave mental health issues. It is a pity the Government and its predecessor, which I supported, failed to tackle the supermarkets and off-licences for the way they are propagating the sale of alcohol. Obviously, the supermarket lobby has won out over the vintners' lobby. I salute the vast majority of publicans who run their businesses properly, pay their wages, rates and taxes and run good institutions. Recovering alcoholics and young people can go into any supermarket to buy a sliced pan and there is alcohol in front of them. It is not being regulated. The Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, agrees with me. I put forward proposals in five budgets that there should be a tax - capping is what it is called now - on cheaply available alcohol. It is everywhere in front of consumers. If something similar were to happen with cannabis, there would be no telling what might happen.

At the outset, I thank Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and the Technical Group for allowing me some of their speaking time. I compliment those such as Mr. Patrick Fitzpatrick, who works with Deputy Flanagan, on their excellent work in bringing this motion seeking legislation before the House. Whichever side of the argument one is on, I believe it is good that we are having the debate.

If the Bill that is proposed only referred to the use of cannabis by persons who are ill and under doctors' advice, and it was to be strictly regulated, I would have no problem whatsoever with it.

I would have a problem with and concerns about personal use and people growing it at home. However, I take grave exception to the fact that last week a Fine Gael Deputy accused the Technical Group of cynically facilitating Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan in bringing this motion before the House. That is a ridiculous statement for any person to make. I refer to the broad-minded attitude of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Even though, like me, she may not support it, she agrees with and welcomes the holding of this debate. We will all be the better for the work Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and his people have done in bringing the motion before the House. While it may not be accepted, I predict that good will come from having such a debate in the first instance. It is wrong for anyone to say it is wrong to facilitate debate. That is what democracy and politics are about. I welcome the debate. I know of the work and sincere effort and research which have been undertaken by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. People from abroad have come here to support him and they have given us the benefit of their expertise and life experiences. That is to be welcomed because we are all on a learning curve. It is very important that we be open-minded and broad-minded about all subjects like this.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges that the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland is regulated under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 and 1984;

recognises the body of clinical evidence which demonstrates that cannabis misuse is detrimental to health;

notes the significant physical and mental health risks associated with long term or heavy use of cannabis and usage in young people;

recognises that legalisation of cannabis, which is known to be a "gateway drug", would potentially lead to increased levels of experimentation with drugs by young people;

notes that cannabis is subject to international controls in the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances and Ireland is a party to these international conventions;

recognises that leniency in cannabis control could endanger the overall international effort against drugs; and

supports the Government in its determination to maintain strict legal controls on cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland.”

I propose to share time with Deputies Michael McNamara, Joe O'Reilly and Joe Carey.

Drug misuse continues to be one of the most significant challenges facing the country. It is highly destructive and has devastating effects on individuals, relationships, families, communities and society in general. Cannabis is the most widely consumed illicit drug in Europe and Ireland. There is a substantial body of clinical evidence documenting the health and social risks associated with its use. The Government is strongly of the view that we should maintain the current system of strict controls and regulation of cannabis in Ireland. For that reason, we will not support Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's motion. I agree with Deputies opposite who spoke about the necessity and importance of debating these questions. I have no objection whatsoever to people in the media and, most of all, in the Oireachtas debating these issues, largely for the reasons outlined by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

The rationale for the Government's position is set out in the national drugs strategy which aims to tackle problem drug use across the five pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. One of the principal objectives of the strategy is to reduce significantly access to all drugs, particularly those drugs that cause most harm to young people and especially in those areas where misuse is most prevalent. The drugs prevalence survey 2010-11 carried out by the national advisory committee on drugs found that cannabis was the most commonly used illicit drug in Ireland. The survey found that trends in recent and current use had remained stable in comparison to a similar survey carried out in 2006-07. However, it reported that lifetime prevalence of cannabis had risen to 25% by 2010-11, up 3.4% since 2006-07.

Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's motion calls for legislation to regulate the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland. He has not tabled a Bill, at least not at this stage, but rather has asked the House to call on the Government to introduce legislation. It is not true for Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett to say the motion has any bearing on a Bill because there is no Bill before the House.

We can give the Government a hand.

As is well known, these issues are already covered under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 and 1984. Under these Acts and the regulations made thereunder, the cultivation, production, preparation, sale, supply, distribution and possession of cannabis is prohibited, except for the purposes of research and the growing of hemp. The Government has no plans to alter or repeal the current strict legal controls on cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland. However, it recognises the claims made in respect of the potential health benefits of cannabis-based medicinal products such as Sativex for patients suffering from certain conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Accordingly, while it is not Government policy to legalise cannabis or its use, provision is being made for the availability of cannabis-based medicinal products by way of an amendment to the misuse of drugs regulations being finalised in my Department. This follows on from the receipt and assessment by the Irish Medicines Board of a request for authorisation for such a product to be available on the Irish market.

As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I maintain close contact with all of the statutory agencies, Departments and the community and voluntary organisations involved in addressing the problem of drug and alcohol misuse in Ireland. Our work spans across the five pillars. Each of these aspects is of critical importance. In this regard, while law enforcement through the criminal justice system is an essential element of our policy approach, as is the case internationally, we must also pay close attention to the health and education dimensions of addressing drug misuse.

I am well aware of the international debate on this question. Earlier this year in Ecuador, representing the Irish EU Presidency, I co-chaired a conference held with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean on dealing with the global drugs problem. Differing perspectives were expressed on many aspects of this extremely challenging issue, including on the subjects of legalisation and decriminalisation, in particular of cannabis. It is important for any government to be aware of international debates and experiences and we are no different from any other country in that regard.

Cannabis, cannabis extracts and cannabinoid substances such as THC which are contained in cannabis are subject to international controls in the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Ireland is a party to these international conventions and consequently has agreed to create and maintain offences for the supply and possession of controlled substances, including cannabis.

The case is sometimes made that criminalisation of drug use does not work, or even that it is counter-productive. As policy-makers, we should always be prepared to listen to reasoned argument. However, there is a significant body of clinical evidence which demonstrates that cannabis misuse is detrimental to health. Physical and mental health risks are particularly associated with long-term or heavy use of cannabis by young people. In 2004 the national advisory committee on drugs published a study entitled, Overview of Scientific and other Information on Cannabis, containing evidence that cannabis use was detrimental to health. This view has been supported in other international research. The risks include increased chances of developing lung and throat cancer, mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia, increased frequency of seizures in epilepsy, and depression. It can also lead to other health problems such as cardiovascular effects in susceptible individuals. The smoke from herbal cannabis preparations contains all the same constituents, apart from nicotine, as tobacco smoke, including carbon monoxide, bronchial irritants and cancer stimulating agents. There are strong indications that regular users of cannabis, but not tobacco, develop more symptoms of chronic bronchitis than do non-smokers.

Of particular concern to me and referred to by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan are the findings of a 2011 NACD study of the increased potency of THC in cannabis product in recent years. There is evidence that cannabis produced in Ireland which can be grown quickly has a higher potency than imported varieties. The question of higher potency is also an issue for our UK neighbours who saw it as a compelling factor leading to the reclassifying of cannabis in 2009, thereby increasing penalties associated with possession and supply.

A central aim of the national drugs strategy is to promote throughout society greater clarity, awareness and understanding of the dangers of drug misuse. The promotion of healthier lifestyle choices among young people is at the heart of substance misuse prevention. I cannot overstate the importance of the work we do to try to prevent young people from becoming involved in drug use in the first place before it becomes an entrenched habit and a dysfunctional way of life. Making this drug available, even where subject to severe restrictions, could potentially lead to increased levels of experimentation with drugs by young people. This, in turn, could lead to increased long-term and sustained use, with the real risk of significant and adverse effect to the health of users.

We need to learn from our experience of new psychoactive substances. We are all aware of the proliferation of head shops in Ireland in the late 2000s. The increase in recreational use of new psychoactive substances posed significant potential risks to users. The fact that these substances were legal, hence the name "legal high", gave comfort to thos using them that they were not in breach of the law. The Government acted swiftly and decisively through controlling approximately 260 substances, as well as through the enactment of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 which made it an offence to sell, import, export or advertise psychoactive substances. These measures led to a sharp decrease in the number of head shops. Law enforcement work continues in order to control the availability of these substances through the Internet and other means, but there is no doubt that reducing access plays a vital role in reducing usage.

The NACD overview of new psychoactive substances refers to survey findings indicating a pattern of reduced use of new psychoactive substances among a subgroup who may be described as "recreational" users. It is likely that this pattern of usage reflects the impact of the May 2010 Government ban on a range of substances. Accordingly, if we were to legislate to allow for the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis, we would be acting contrary to our core policy objective of reducing availability and access to harmful drugs. It does not follow that legalisation of the kind being advocated would reduce the level of criminality associated with the illicit drugs market. Were cannabis to be legalised, it presumably would be very strongly regulated, possibly heavily priced, and with a much lower potency level. The illicit market would, no doubt, continue, and provide a cheaper and stronger product. Consequently, any benefits such as those suggested by Deputy Flanagan must be set against the likely continued existence of an illicit and indeed criminal market.

As I have already stated, Ireland is a party to International conventions on the control of illicit drugs. In this respect, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers adopted a resolution in 2004 requesting member states to take measures to discourage personal use of cannabis, so Ireland's position cannot be considered purely in our own national context. We cannot act in isolation and we must be conscious of the position of other EU states.

It is worth noting that we now have a comprehensive Government framework setting out a vision for a healthy Ireland, and the actions we need to take in order to attain this vision. Our objective is to improve the health and well-being of the whole population, increasing the proportion of people who are healthy at all stages of life and protecting them from threats to health and well-being. We need to minimise all risk factors if individuals are to be supported and motivated to make healthier choices.

To briefly respond to the contributions of colleagues opposite, I repeat what I have already said about the absolute propriety of our having a debate in this House on these issues. I would like for us in the Oireachtas to be able to engage in debate across all the various threats, issues and challenges that we face in the drugs and alcohol area. I was delighted recently to see the Government approving a set of proposals brought forward by me in the alcohol area, and for the first time we will have a public health (alcohol) Bill. It will be the first time in this country that we will address the alcohol issue in public health legislation, including some of the matters raised by Deputy Mattie McGrath some moments ago in respect of access in supermarkets and so on. There is absolutely no objection to debate.

With respect to Deputy Flanagan, there is no reality in suggesting that legalisation of cannabis is not a radical proposal. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his proposal, it is nonetheless radical, and it is not credible to ignore completely the health evidence, as Deputy Flanagan has done. He made no reference to it in the course of his speech.

I will do so in my closing speech.

He spoke earlier of doing word checks. If we did a word check on Deputy Flanagan's speech, it is unlikely we would find the word "health".

It will be in the next contribution.

I have listened very carefully to Deputies Flanagan, Maureen O'Sullivan and others and we must listen to one another. We must have regard to what is happening internationally but we cannot exclude from the debate completely the very genuine and serious risks that exist to health, as set out in recent days, for example, by a number of psychiatrists and other professionals working in the field in the context of this debate. We should not exclude any party from the discussion or any reasoned argument. If we are to respect one another's perspective, we must listen to all arguments made on every side.

There is no reality in the suggestion that there is no down side or potential negative consequences arising from legalisation of cannabis, and it is not credible for Deputy Flanagan or anybody else to suggest it. I know he must put forward his argument with all the force he can muster but he must have regard to the case against him and the legalisation of cannabis. We should have the debate by all means, having regard to all the evidence and arguments. We should not imagine that taking the step Deputy Flanagan is advocating in his motion - I repeat there is no Bill - would not have a negative consequence, as it would do so.

I commend Deputy Flanagan and the Technical Group on raising the issue and giving the House the opportunity to debate what I believe is an increasingly important issue. I also thank the Technical Group for offering me speaking time this evening as opposed to tomorrow evening, when I am due to travel to a meeting.

In 1996 a book called Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland was published by Cork University Press, which is hardly a revolutionary outfit. It was written by a former law lecturer of mine so perhaps I am slightly biased. I found it a rather convincing read and a serious argument was raised by it. In the years since 1996, what serious rethinking of the war on drugs in Ireland has taken place? With the greatest respect to the Government counter-motion tonight, it would appear there has been none.

The war on drugs was declared by none other than Richard Nixon in 1971, when he stated the war would result in a drugs-free world. Now, more than 40 years on, there is a growing movement to declare that war unwinnable, not least because there are now more drug users in every country in the world, and I dare say in every constituency in Ireland. There are 250 million drug users worldwide, according to a UN estimate. Illicit drugs are now the third most valuable industry in the world, behind food and oil, and that industry is estimated to be worth $450 billion dollars per year. All of it is controlled by criminals, whether the activity is in this city, this country, Colombia, the United States, Scariff, Ennistymon, Clarecastle or even Cootehill.

We know drugs are dangerous and the argument must be taken seriously, just as we know alcohol is very dangerous and nicotine is a serious matter. I commend the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Reilly, on the initiatives proposed and, importantly, which are being put into action to combat the misuse of alcohol and nicotine in Ireland. Some 7,000 people in Ireland die from smoking-related diseases every year, and these deaths occur despite the fact they are preventable.

The Minister of State has argued that even if drugs are legalised, criminality will not be eradicated. That is true. Even tonight a poitín still was broken up in Deputy Joe O'Reilly's constituency and I have no doubt people are selling illegal cigarettes across the city as we speak. Nevertheless, we are able to control nicotine, including the amount sold and to whom it is sold, by and large. We can get a clear picture of the problem and there is no such clear picture of drug use. We know drug use is increasing, and the chief executive of Merchants Quay Ireland has revealed that the scale of the country's drug problem is increasing. He has stated that the spread of drug use outside Dublin is an ongoing trend, with continued demand for services at regional level.

Some 17 years after the publication of Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland, drug use continues to increase in the country. In 2006, the adult caution scheme was introduced, whereby gardaí could grant an adult caution for a list of offences if they believed it to be beneficial. It was proposed that the possession of cannabis - not possession with intent to supply - would be included on the list but it fell off the bottom. Additional offences have been added since in which an adult caution can be issued but possession of cannabis remains excluded. I asked the Minister for Justice and Equality in how many cases the Probation Act was applied to cases of cannabis possession in Ireland, and there appears to be approximately 1,500 cases on average every year. With these people, a file is prepared and a garda shows up in court before the Probation Act is applied. Is that useful for Garda resources in the constituencies around the country? It is not, and I urge the Minister to seriously consider adding possession of cannabis to the adult caution scheme. That should not mean a caution would be always applied but if a Garda believes it to be the best course of action, there should be an option to do so. That was what was originally proposed by the Minister responsible for justice matters as far back as 2006.

A serious body of work has been done by the Government with regard to alcohol abuse and smoking but, regrettably, the counter-motion does not reflect a serious consideration of the drug problem in this country.

A commission should be established of senior policing experts, Revenue officials, doctors and people from the medical world to examine the situation. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy White, that it is a radical proposal to legalise drugs, especially as we have built ourselves in a "war on drugs" mentality. I urge the Minister to set up a commission of senior gardaí, Revenue officials and senior policing experts worldwide, including the UN ODC and other organisations that work on the issue to examine the effect of such a change. We are now out of kilter with the majority of states in western Europe in terms of how we treat possession of cannabis. It is the case that cannabis is becoming more dangerous because as the Minister of State indicated, the variants which can be profitably grown by criminals in this country are more dangerous than those which used to be imported by other criminals. Criminals do what is most profitable without any concern for what is beneficial. I urge the Minister of State to move beyond the "war" mentality because I fear it is a war which cannot be won towards devising a workable solution to the drugs problem across the State.

I wish to share time with Deputy Carey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I join in commending and applauding Deputy Flanagan on bringing about this worthwhile debate. It is critical that we would have such a debate in the House of Parliament. I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan that the debate should be broadened and that on this and future occasions we must examine the issues around the use of drugs and giving young people the necessary self esteem to deal with the problem. A broader debate is required on all of the safeguards.

Before we legalise a narcotic, we would have to examine the health and other implications. With respect to the proposer of the motion - it is a worthy debate - the balance of the greater good for society lies in the status quo. Careful consideration is required but the evidence tends to support that view. I will cite studies in due course but cannabis use can contribute to cognitive deficiencies, dependency and, if smoked, to smoking-related health problems such as throat and lung cancer and respiratory problems. The evidence supports the view that an array of health issues is unavoidable. Cannabis use is believed to contribute to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and in some cases, psychosis. The effect of cannabis on the mind of the user, especially if the user is an adolescent, is most disconcerting. Studies from Bristol University have shown that there are high levels of cannabis use among adolescents who show signs of schizophrenia. The primary psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, is known as THC. THC is known to have a significantly disruptive impact on the areas of the brain vital for memory and decision-making. It has been empirically established that people who smoke the drug between five and 20 times a month have a 10% greater incidence of such memory problems than non-users. Those who smoke cannabis more than 20 times a month have been found to be 20% more deficient. Cannabis use also heightens anxiety. Adolescents who use the drug are at a highly vulnerable age. The point was made that perhaps the THC levels are greater because the drug is illegal and cultivated underground. With respect to the proposer and his supporters I submit that it would not be possible to police the situation adequately and that even if cannabis were legalised one could not monitor THC levels and the problem would remain. For young people, their brains are still very much at the developmental stage, particularly from a cognitive and social behaviour point of view. The British Medical Journal found that the use of cannabis in adolescence increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia in adulthood and early cannabis use by age 15 confers greater risk for schizophrenia outcomes.

I am aware of the argument about pain relief. I am happy the Department has conducted a study on the use of cannabis for those suffering from multiple sclerosis. Dr. Henry McQuay, from Oxford University has sounded a note of caution in terms of the side effects on the nervous system. The jury is out to some extent on the issue but in so far as it is beneficial from a health point of view any civilised person would want the use of cannabis to be considered in that context.

With your indulgence, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle I wish to briefly mention a couple of issues. Reference has been made to the benefits of cannabis versus nicotine and alcohol. Were nicotine to be introduced now with the knowledge we have today it would not be made legal. Our attitude to alcohol has changed and is radically different. I commend the fact that the Minister will deal with the issue.

I am concerned about the potential of cannabis as a gateway drug. While it might sound a little old-fashioned and traditional I am genuinely concerned about the gateway factor. I say that as a teacher and the parent of three young boys. I point to the way head shops were used until the matter was addressed. A degree of experimentation was involved. A plethora of head shops quickly developed which was an indication of use, experimentation and the fact that they offered excitement. I fear that the legalisation of cannabis would lead to a gateway culture and a progression to more serious drugs. Support from a Yale University study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests the use of prescription drugs by people who initially use cannabis.

The Netherlands is cited as nirvana by proponents of the legislation but there are compelling and difficult statistics from that country which we cannot avoid. A total of 13,109 clients entered treatment for cannabis use in the Netherlands in 2011. A total of 48.3% of all those treated reported cannabis as their primary drug. The Netherlands National Drug Monitor annual report for 2011 stated that in the period between 2007 and 2009 nearly 30,000 adults aged between 18 and 64 were diagnosed with cannabis dependence.

I must call Deputy O'Reilly's colleague now.

The associated health issues I outlined arise in the Netherlands where grave difficulties have arisen due to the legalisation of cannabis use.

I will finish on this point. I genuinely believe, first, that a serious body of evidence supports the connection between continuous cannabis use and mental health issues and, second, that there is a risk of it being a gateway drug. I believe we should not change the status quo until we get compelling evidence to the contrary. I would not have a difficulty with studies of the kind advocated by Deputy McNamara.

I will deal with the issue tomorrow evening.

In recent days, I asked for contributions from constituents on the issue of legalising cannabis. It is an issue that attracts a strong reaction with those in favour of legalisation tending to shout louder than those who are against it. As drugs go, both legal or otherwise, it is fair to say that cannabis is not of the more serious variety. There does not tend to be the same widespread social disruption as a result of persons regularly using cannabis, as opposed to persons who may be alcoholic, for example, or are intravenous drug users. That, in itself, though, is not a strong enough argument for legalisation. The link between prolonged cannabis use and mental health-related illnesses, has been proven in some instances and should not be dismissed lightly. We must listen to those working at the front line in our addiction services, who have seen persons present who find it very difficult to end cannabis use.

In the UK, we know that from January 2004 to January 2009, the law relating to cannabis was relaxed. In effect, cannabis went from being a class B drug to a class C drug. A Newcastle University study showed that during the same period, smoking of the drug increased in the UK by 25% and smoking in general increased by 8%. Despite the smoking ban in Ireland, our per capita smoking levels are quite high in comparison to the UK or the US. That is something we would need to think very carefully about if we were to legalise any new product such as cannabis, that can be smoked with or without tobacco. The last thing Ireland needs is more smokers with society as a whole paying for the added burden on our health system.

Notwithstanding my reluctance to embrace legalising cannabis, I acknowledge that there may be ways we can examine changing the current system to better effect. In the past week, many young people have contacted me about how their experimentation with cannabis when younger has caused them problems, specifically in regard to work and visa applications. Some of them were caught in possession of relatively small amounts of the drug.

Perhaps we need to examine the model adopted in Portugal and elsewhere where decriminalisation has been introduced. I have listened to people like Tony Geoghegan from the Merchant's Quay project, who referenced this model in recent days, and I believe we should examine it. In Portugal, the authorities have decriminalised possession of specified amounts for personal use. If one is caught in possession, one must face a panel, which could comprise a doctor, social worker or a judge who would decide on the best course of action, be it a fine, penalty or, as is often the case, a course of drug treatment and counselling. If one is caught in possession of amounts larger than amounts associated with personal use, one must face the judicial system. Since the introduction of decriminalisation in Portugal, drug use has declined significantly, and the way the citizens view addiction has also changed.

With regard to the issue of cannabis for medicinal use, many of those who contacted me in recent days outlined in great detail how using cannabis helps them with illnesses such as motor neurone disease and MS. I note that the Irish Medicines Board has recently approved the cannaboid spray Sativex, which is also available under strict conditions in the United Kingdom. The medical aspect needs to be examined.

This is a debate well worth having, and I congratulate Deputy Flanagan on tabling the motion. We do need to consider every possible way of tackling imaginatively and progressively societal problems arsing from illegal drug use. From a medical point of view, I believe the use of cannabis by persons suffering from MS and motor neurone disease should be permitted. I am not convinced that legalisation is the answer but believe we should begin to consider decriminalisation as a way of prioritising drug rehabilitation over jail so society as a whole will benefit.

Fianna Fáil is opposed to this motion. The legalisation of cannabis in Ireland will do little to curb criminality while simultaneously jeopardising the health of generations of Irish people. The appeal of taking a libertarian approach to this problem is a failure of our responsibility to protect society from the harmful effects of drug abuse and the inevitable violent criminality it brings with it. Deputy Flanagan's misguided enthusiasm - I say that respectfully - for this project down through the years belies the all-too-real dangers of cannabis. I acknowledge, however, that Deputy Flanagan is a lifelong, consistent campaigner on this issue.

As legislators, we have a duty to pursue the common good. The damage that legislating cannabis would inflict upon innumerable people across the county is a breach of that duty. This attempt to liberalise drug use demonstrates a deeply flawed view of the common good.

It is particularly ironic that, in a time when we are ramping up efforts to cut down on smoking, we are now discussing the addition of a further dangerous substance to people's lives. Efforts to introduce plain packaging and copperfasten the smoking ban introduced by Deputy Martin are the new front line in snuffing out tobacco use in Ireland. The work and progress made in tackling tobacco usage and its detrimental impact on health will pale in comparison to the challenges presented by widescale cannabis use. It begs the question as to why we would escalate a public health crisis by adding a new toxic substance into the mixture, which question underpins the whole debate on this subject. Why would we risk undoing the good work achieved to date? Proponents of legalisation have not put forward a reasonable answer to that question.

I would like to confront a number of other claims made by advocates in favour of legalisation. Many of the arguments put forward by advocates of the Bill point out the grave problems that alcohol abuse has inflicted upon Irish life. Undoubtedly, our collective national drink problem costs the Irish taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro per annum in health and security costs. By contrast, proponents of legalisation claim that cannabis has no such drawbacks. However, this is ultimately an argument in favour of prohibiting alcohol and not legalising cannabis. Unconsciously advocating for the Volstead Act does not mean endorsing the legalisation of cannabis. This is not a prohibition-era discussion. Our efforts to tackle the ongoing problems of endemic alcohol abuse in Ireland should not be diverted with a tangential attempt to legalise cannabis.

It is extremely difficult to remove organised criminal groups from a business if they are already involved. Any move to regulate the cannabis trade or licence it would inevitably result in the creation of a shadow economy to undercut the legitimate trade. Evidence of this can be seen all too clearly in the case of other substances, such as tobacco, cigarettes and alcohol. The €300 million industry estimate ignores the continual criminal role in the area. These products are sold and licensed in Ireland but there is an equally vibrant black market trade in the substances. Evidence has shown that consumers are not concerned with quality so much as price.

The legitimate trade in cigarettes and tobacco in parts of Dublin has virtually collapsed because of the black market trade. Regulating the trade and use of cannabis would likely cause the illegal trade to flourish as it would create a benign environment for drug use to take place and would probably strengthen the hand of organised crime gangs that would benefit from it.

It is worth noting the problems the Dutch are facing with regard to the position they adopted in 1976 when they decriminalised possession of less than 5g in 1976. Amsterdam is now a centre of operations for most major organised crime outfits and a hub of hard drug distribution. The areas where coffee shops sell cannabis all suffer from late-night disturbances, traffic jams and hard drug-dealing because of cross-border visits from Belgium and Germany, where cannabis cannot be bought openly. The Dutch have attempted to repeal the laws but have backed down because they are too afraid that the country's drug-using population will cause further problems if they cannot source drugs from existing coffee shops.

It is worth noting that people licensed to produce cannabis for their own use would inevitably sell to friends and associates. Rather than prevent people from getting a criminal record, allowing people to produce a drug would inevitably encourage them to engage in petty dealing, therefore causing more problems for the justice system. The motion, as proposed, is effectively unenforceable and would be impossible to police.

Much of the discussion on the health impact of cannabis strikes me as dangerously naive. It ignores the variety of cannabis available and the dangerous impact it has on users. The cannabis on sale in Ireland at the moment is primarily skunk grass, which is grown in secret grow-houses under lights. By contrast, during the 1980s about 70% of cannabis consumed in Ireland and Britain was cannabis resin, or hashish, imported from north Africa. It was produced from the wild-growing cannabis sativa in Morocco. This skunk is usually twice as potent as cannabis resin although both are synonymous with triggering schizophrenia and mental health issues in certain types of people. Skunk is produced by crossing cannabis sativa and indica to produce a hardy plant that can be cultivated indoors. Skunk is genetically modified to such an extent that it bears no resemblance to the cannabis that would have been smoked in the 1960s.

The motion makes no reference to what sort of cannabis plant would be permitted in Ireland. If it were to become legal, criminals would simply undercut any legitimate trade to control the market by producing more potent plants. Criminals who grow the drug in Ireland are already focused on increasing the strength of the high from the crop they produce. One way they do this is by selecting plants that are naturally more potent; another is to use lights to mimic the effect of autumn on the female plant. This causes it to produce more resin in a last-ditch attempt to pollinate itself before winter, and the resin is what makes it stronger. The varying potency of the drug would inevitably create different markets, with criminal enterprises moving into one area over another.

In short, cannabis is harmful. Ireland's psychiatric hospitals are literally overwhelmed with young men who have developed psychiatric problems by using cannabis or newer varieties of it.

If one considers that all pharmaceutical drugs and foods undergo rigorous testing to see if they cause side effects, one can see the difficulties with permitting cannabis to be sold.

In straitened economic times the idea of a viable commercial industry providing employment and making a contribution to the Exchequer might seem appealing. However, the reality of attempting to commercialise cannabis production and sales throws up insurmountable problems. Any legitimate business which would enter into cannabis manufacture would, of course, have to secure insurance to operate. Given that tobacco and cigarette companies are being sued for selling products which cause cancer, it is hard to imagine how any limited company could comply with any human resources, employment and health legislation, given the activities in which it would be involved. In terms of regulation, would persons with criminal convictions be permitted to produce cannabis? The reality is that established dealers with expertise in the area are involved in overtly criminal enterprises. The vista of a cannabis regulation authority would do nothing to curb criminal engagement.

In 2010 the then Fianna Fáil Government took a strong stance in addressing the problem of psychoactive substances being sold in so-called head shops. Criticism of the measure focused on the claims that banning head shops would do nothing to actually reduce the use of these dangerous substances, that it would, in effect, drive them underground. In fact, the end result of the decisive measures taken against these substances was to significantly curb their usage, in particular among vulnerable adolescents. There is a lesson to be drawn from that experience in this debate. Eliminating head shops and banning dangerous substances that treaded the boundary of legality was a positive measure to protect young people. Legalising cannabis would be a perverse application of the lessons learned in that experience. If the sale of cannabis was to be permitted, it would create a benign environment for illicit drug use to flourish.

This debate provides an opportunity to reappraise how we resource the Garda in tackling drug fuelled criminality and whether resources would be better directed towards high-level suppliers rather than low-end users. Garda discretion is key in empowering the force to realistically tackle drug abuse. There must be a debate on the use of adult caution and the impact the current system has on the administration of justice. It also behoves us to ask why drug abuse flourishes in our society and what we can do to address it. This is an immense task of dealing with both supply and demand and any drugs strategy must address both aspects. However, the principle that cannabis should be legalised is simply indefensible because the health and social risks are far too great for us to countenance. This is a deeply flawed measure reflecting faulty assumptions. We need to stand up to the allure of populist measures and do what is right for the greater good of the country.

Sinn Féin welcomes this debate on the question of cannabis legalisation on the basis that such a debate is needed and should prove informative. We commend Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan for bringing forward this motion. While we will not be voting in favour of it, we believe there is merit in a thorough and critical examination of all aspects of how problem drug use is addressed in our society.

The question of cannabis legalisation is one which divides opinion sharply but one which definitely needs to be teased out and debated in a calm, considered fashion. We must move beyond a facile, adversarial approach. Hysteria is not what we need. We must approach the issue in an evidence-based way and draw our conclusions from the evidence. We must look at problem drug use, including cannabis and alcohol, in a holistic manner, taking into account the implications for individual health, the effects on wider society and the role of the justice system.

One of two main arguments made in favour of cannabis legalisation is that the drug is less harmful than others. That may be so, but that is only in relative terms and we do not believe this is a valid argument for legalisation. The drug can have serious detrimental effects on people's health. There is considerable concern in the medical community about the effect of cannabis on the levels of schizophrenia and psychosis. It is widely believed cannabis use can increase the likelihood of the onset of psychosis. From a health point of view, there is a legitimate concern that legalisation would lead to even wider problem use of the drug. There is surely validity in the argument that legalisation would run contrary to the efforts we are making to combat tobacco smoking and the problem use of other drugs, including alcohol. It is important that we note the enormous damage alcohol abuse causes in Ireland in terms of health and public safety, as well as its implications for the health care system. We must work very hard to ensure we tackle the misuse of alcohol, as well as illegal substances.

The second main argument used in favour of cannabis legalisation is that it would take what is admittedly a very widely used drug out of the hands of organised criminals and free up resources for combating the trade in more damaging drugs. In 2009 Sinn Féin published its proposed priorities for a national drugs strategy for the period 2009 to 2016. In that document we state the spectrum of drug-related crime must be understood if justice and public policy is to be effective in reducing such crime. The drug policy action group categorised drug crime as systemic, economic-compulsive and psycho-pharmacological. System crimes include drug trafficking, dealing, possession and associated gangland crime, including murder, intimidation and money laundering. Economic-compulsive crime describes robbery to feed a drug habit, while psycho-pharmacological crime includes violence against people or property caused by the mental or behavioural effects of drug taking. We argue in our submission that law enforcement efforts and resources must be matched with the priorities arising from an objective understanding of the three main types of drug-related crime. The rates of prosecution relating to heroin and cocaine compared to those for cannabis do not match the far greater relative harm caused by the former drugs. The focus of policing efforts should be systematically matched with the relative harm caused by the various drugs, with the understanding of harm to include that done to individuals, communities and wider society. This requires a critical examination of how the policing and justice system addresses problem drug use and we should not shy away from that examination.

Sinn Féin has never supported the legalisation of cannabis, though strong arguments have been made on both sides. This position has been reaffirmed at successive party ard fheiseanna. The health implications associated with cannabis, like tobacco, are very serious and have the potential to have a significant negative effect on public health. On the separate but related issue of the medicinal benefits of cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, there is significant scientific evidence to support the case for the introduction of such products here. We would, of course, await the expert advice of the relevant Irish regulatory authorities, including the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics and the Irish Medicines Board. Again, we must allow expertise to be the basis for our decisions, but if there is evidence to support the introduction of such products, we should consider it.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 November 2013.