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Should legalising weed really be high on our MPs' list of priorities?

The debate whether to decriminalise marijuana for medicinal purposes comes before parliament tomorrow. Self-confessed 'recreational user' Paul Hopkins looks at the pros and cons

Published 19/09/2016

MPs will discuss the legalisation of cannabis tomorrow
MPs will discuss the legalisation of cannabis tomorrow

It was a sunny summer's day at Slane Castle, Co Meath, the annual rock gig, with Freddie Mercury and Queen belting out their greatest hits. Tens of thousands of fans were in front of the stage, whereas I had the pleasure of a personal invitation from Henry Lord Mountcharles and the late promoter Jim Aiken and was with dozens of A-listers in the private grounds of the castle with access to indoors, where we partook of Champagne and strawberries and cream.

Sated by such, I sat in the glorious sunshine by the side of the castle walls with a great view of the stage. Somebody rolled another joint, and then another, and we passed it around among the five of us. Smoking dope that day with me back in the mid-1980s were a motley crew, among them a politician who now sits in the Assembly, a young journalist, now a household name as a national radio broadcaster, and a writer who specialised in Northern Ireland and who died more than a decade ago.

We got utterly stoned, and a great day was had by all.

For me, it was not the first or last time. As a child of the Sixties, with its licence to swing, that morphed into being a dedicated follower of the hippie movement, smoking marijuana was just part of what I did. All that flower power and psychedelic stuff, magical mystery tours and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. As celebrity American psychologist Timothy Leary advocated: "Tune in, turn on, drop out."

I had my first taste of marijuana the year Bob Dylan played the Isle of Wight and was an habitual, occasional and social cannabis smoker for the next four decades.

There are more than 200 street names for cannabis - including weed, pot, herb, bud, dope, spliff, reefer, grass, ganja, Bob Hope, doobie and skunk. Marijuana is a green, brown or gray mixture of dried, shredded leaves, stems, seeds and flowers of the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. It is a psychoactive, or mind-altering, drug.

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Sinsemilla, which I smoked in California in 1972 at a drive-in watching Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - hash/hashish (resinous form) and hash oil (sticky black liquid) - brought back to me by a civil servant on a year's leave of absence in India are stronger forms of the drug.

Its main active chemical is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive ingredient.

When marijuana smoke is inhaled THC is rapidly carried to the brain and other organs.

THC acts on specific receptors in the brain called cannabinoids, starting off a chain of cellular reactions which finally lead to the euphoria - or 'high' - hat users experience when stoned.

Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are heightened.

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Marijuana, since those halcyon days of the Sixties, has had its advocates and its detractors.

On the one hand some assert that cannabis is a dangerous, highly addictive drug that causes schizophrenia, and that any move to relax prohibition would be a disaster.

On the other hand there are those who have used cannabis for years - myself included - who swear it causes no trouble or side-effects.

Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug globally, with currently 2.9% of people aged 15 to 64 having used or still using marijuana.

Among public figures who have admitted smoking marijuana are David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harmon and Norman Lamont, as well as the late Mo Mowlam and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Then there's Bill Clinton ("I did not inhale") and Barack Obama, John Kerry and George W Bush, as well as Bill Gates and Sarah Palin.

Celebrities include Johnny Depp, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Morgan Freeman.

The Hollywood director Oliver Stone said: "I went to Vietnam and I was there for a long time.

"Using marijuana made the difference between staying human or, as Michael Douglas said, becoming a beast."

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Tomorrow, the debate in the UK will once again take off, following the publication of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report recommending the legalisation of pharmaceutically produced cannabis for medical use only.

MPs will set out an argument for enabling doctors to prescribe cannabis that has been produced in a strictly controlled pharmaceutical setting, and recommend facilitating further research on its therapeutic properties.

They will recommend it is made available to treat around 60 specific conditions, with proven and well-documented medical benefits for cancer, Aids, glaucoma and other debilitating and painful conditions such as MS and motor neurone disease.

MPs will look at the global context.

Access to cannabis as a medicine is now allowed in Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and more than 20 states in the US. Germany and Switzerland allow it to be imported from the Netherlands for medicinal purposes.

Baroness Molly Meacher, who chaired the APPG committee recommending the changes to the law, says 30,000 people in the UK now access the drug illegally for medical reasons, putting themselves at risk, paying criminal dealers and fuelling a black market in drugs.

She says that more than one million people could benefit from making the drug available as a controlled medicine "saving the NHS millions". She also believes that public opinion is now in favour of a change.

But there is still considerable opposition to any change in UK law. The British Medical Association remains firmly opposed.

It has concerns about any pharmaceutical drug finding its way onto the recreational market and also about the possible psychotic and addictive side-effects. Those advocating a change in the law maintain that there would be less risk of either with specially produced and controlled cannabis.

The Netherlands, which for decades now has allowed open marijuana consumption and sales at its famous coffee shops, provides some salutary lessons - if reformers and politicians are willing to heed them.

In the Republic the call for medical marijuana is back on the agenda this year. Back in 2012 then Health Minister James Reilly faced calls to legalise such use in Ireland. The push for legislation was a result of applications to the Irish Medicines Board from drug companies wishing to sell cannabis-based medicines in Ireland (ie bring in revenue).

In November 2013, however, the whole idea was shot down with a 111 to eight votes in the Dail. The cannabis Bill, put forward by maverick Independent TD Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, was allowed some debate, but it seems most of the rhetoric was from politicians with no real idea what cannabis is or does. Even Reilly pulled out the debunked "cannabis causes schizophrenia" myth.

Side-effects of marijuana use - if any - vary from person to person. The short-term effects include problems with memory and learning; distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch); difficulty in thinking and problem solving; loss of co-ordination and motor skills. As far as am aware, I have never suffered any ill-effects.

Advocates of decriminalising marijuana for recreational as well as medical use say its prohibition is an unwarranted intrusion in individual freedom of choice. Crime and violence are greatly increased due to illegal selling and buying and a change in the law would logically end such behaviour.

In the end, I believe marijuana is no more harmful to a person's health than alcohol or tobacco - both legal and widely used, but regulated. And it does not lead to harder drugs, no more than drinking milk leads to alcoholism. Perhaps, it is less harmful. The jury is still out.

Tomorrow's support for medical legislation, however, will certainly fuel the debate and may even be a "tipping point" policy moment, but no change is likely for a long time yet.

And, of course, what happens in Westminster does not necessarily follow through to Stormont.

Belfast Telegraph

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