Is cannabis really safer than alcohol? The case for full legalisation

Campaigner Barry Brown tells JOANNE SAVAGE why we should be able to use cannabis with impunity

Friday, 14th May 2021, 8:00 am
The health benefits of the cannabis plant are manifold

Cannabis remains a class B drug here in Northern Ireland, meaning possession or supply of the drug can result in hefty fines and five to 14 years imprisonment.

Yet the plant has huge medicinal properties, ranging from aiding those suffering from PTSD, to the alleviation of chronic pain, regulation of diabetes, improvement of lung capacity and the treatment of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. It has also been found to be helpful in the treatment of depression, arthritis, cancer, ADHD, autism, seizures, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.

Cannabis contains what are known as cannabinoids which are shown to be profoundly helpful in the alleviation of chronic pain and in relaxing patients receiving palliative care.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

All animals have an endocannabinoid system of retrograde neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors (CBRs) throughout the central nervous system including the brain. This system regulates the pharmacological effects of cannabis.

The active chemicals in marijuana are similar to chemicals the body makes that are involved in appetite, memory, movement, and pain.

And the research suggests cannabinoids can reduce anxiety and inflammation, and as we have mentioned, relive pain; they can also control the nausea and vomiting occasioned by chemotherapy as well as killing cancer cells, slowing down tumour growth and relaxing muscles in people with MS.

CBD oil and hemp products which contain cannabis minus its primary psychoactive constituent THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol), are available to buy easily, and medicinal cannabis (any form of medication containing cannabis) can be prescribed here in certain exceptional circumstances.

Famously, Co Tyrone mum Charlotte Caldwell, mother of 15-year-old Billy, who suffers from refractory epilepsy, fought a protracted legal battle so that her son could legally receive prescriptions of medicinal cannabis on the NHS.

They first made headlines in 2018 when officials at London’s Heathrow airport confiscated cannabis-based medicine from them, which had been obtained in Canada.

Cannabis was the only drug able to stave off the multiple seizures Billy would suffer each day and Charlotte had to launch a legal challenge against the NHS and the Department of Health here in Northern Ireland in order to secure Billy’s access to the drug.

On October 11 2018, the government announced that from November 1, 2018, expert doctors would be given the authority “to legally issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines when they agree that their patients could benefit from this treatment”.

The government emphasised that only a “specialist doctor” – and not a GP – can prescribe “these unlicensed medicines”. This makes it extremely difficult for patients to legally access the drug since many must wait months or years to see specialists who are far more likely to prescribe drugs made by big pharmaceutical companies rather than medication made from the wonder plant because of its criminal legacy.

And what of recreational cannabis use?

Smoking weed or pot has been with us since the swinging Sixties when hippies hung out at communes professing peace and love while smoking spliffs.

American president Richard Nixon turned to increasingly harsh measures against cannabis use in the 1970s, and stepped away from proposals to decriminalise or legalise the drug. The administration began the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, with Nixon in 1971 naming drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States.”

Under the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis was listed as Schedule I with other drugs, having maximum abuse potential but no medicinal value. Well, Nixon could not have been more wrong and today 16 American states have legalised cannabis use.

A host of countries, now accepting the vast medicinal properties of the cannabis plant, have also moved to decriminalise the drug including Canada, Germany, Australia, Greece, and too many more to list here.

Barry Brown, west Tyrone representative for the political party CISTA (previously named Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol but now known as the Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance) is passionately committed to the complete legalisation and regulation of the drug.

“Peter Robinson called us cracks when we stood for election in 2015 as the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party, but three years later we have legal - but not accessible - medicinal cannabis.

“Yet cannabis is a widely used drug here, as it is in other parts of the UK and across the world. You can get it delivered as easily as you can get a pizza delivered. Around 10 per cent of the population have consumed or do consume cannabis regularly.

“The worrying thing is that at the top of the chain cannabis distribution is presided over by guns and muscle, or paramilitaries. If we decriminalised and fully legalised recreational use we would be protecting people from any engagement with these thugs who make a mint from dealing.

“I think people should legally be allowed to buy and use cannabis, because, of course, in my view it is safer than alcohol which leads to street brawls, domestic abuse, all kinds of violence and risky behaviour in a way that cannabis simply does not. Cannabis relaxes you and it is more likely that if you smoke a joint you will feel peaceful and relaxed and behave in a more sanguine way towards others.

“Yet we think nothing of consuming alcohol because it is so widely available and such a big part of our culture.

“I would say that since the start of lockdown research would show that cannabis use has increased and if people are using it to relax or unwind or achieve relief from back pain or so many other ailments, then I don’t think this is a bad thing at all.

“In fact I speak to lots of people who use cannabis for medical reasons when they find that the pain medication that they have been prescribed by doctors doesn’t provide relief. And the sad thing is that doctors will only prescribe cannabis when they have exhausted the possibilities of all other drugs, which seem more harmful to me than a naturally occurring substance.

“Northern Ireland could benefit massively in economic terms if cannabis was fully legalised and regulated, because there is a big market and what’s happening at the moment is that the paramilitary rogue traders are the people raking it in. That is something we need to change.”

Brown concedes that cannabis can be misused and there is some evidence that use of the drug can produce negative mental health outcomes such as psychosis in some people.

THC is the compound responsible for this and there are different strains - sativa, which is associated with creativity, stimulation and the cannabis ‘high’ - and indica - which Barry describes as ‘couch lock stuff’ that is more beneficial to those seeking sedative or pain-relieving properties.

“But most drugs present some kind of danger. To me, of all the drugs out there, alcohol is infinitely more likely to lead to aggression and violence.

“If cannabis was discovered today it would probably be hailed as a wonder drug and alcohol would probably be outlawed. It’s a warped situation that we find ourselves in and I believe we would benefit as a society if we acknowledged that people are and will continue to use cannabis both recreationally and for medicinal purposes, and amend our legislation accordingly, boosting the economy and giving people easier access to a substance more likely to disseminate peace and love than a bottle of whiskey.”