by Niall Coleman and Gáibhin McGranagan
As advocacy for decriminalisation of cannabis spreads across the globe, Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA) have made history by becoming the first single-issue party committed to drugs reform to screen a party-political broadcast on Northern Irish television. The Gown met with Glenn Donnelly, CISTA’s candidate for North Down to learn of the party’s organisation, canvassing the doors of Northern Ireland, and the party political broadcast which had Peter Robinson recoiling in disgust.
As our conversation began, we were intrigued by Mr. Donnelly’s own story with cannabis, and the formation of CISTA. As a younger man, he left Belfast behind in a bold decision to throw himself into the cannabis reform movement in Vancouver, Canada. In seven years, he opened several dispensaries and ‘vape’ stores, and became heavily involved with the movement in Vancouver, inspired and influenced by Canadian advocacy figures such as Mark Avery. After seven years in the ‘freedom’ of Vancouver, Donnelly was disappointed to return to stringent and disproportionate drug laws on his return to Northern Ireland.“If we are committing a crime, where’s the victim?”. Paul Birch, who made millions following the sale of social networking giant Bebo invested £100,000 in the party who are now contesting candidates across the UK with close cooperation with cannabis advocacy groups in the Republic of Ireland.
“We’ve been going since February of this year, so we’re pretty young. But we’ve got a solid number of candidates for Westminster,” said Donnelly. “Over here we’re standing in West Tyrone, East Derry, North Down and Upper Bann. For now we’re mostly running on that singular issue, but I mean, we’re all very keen to branch out into other policy areas. And that’s the beauty of it: prohibition has a profoundly negative impact on any society. Legalisation would be hugely positive step forward, especially in the midst of a recession. Unlike the other parties, we’re here to add to society. There’s an estimated £900m worth of cannabis consumption in the UK. Think how much we could save on police resources through legalization. It doesn’t have to be the case of constant cuts”.
Mr. Donnelly puts the case across for decriminalisation with eloquence great conviction. When asked about who is leading the way in drugs reform, he immediately turns to Canada. “Medicinal usage is perfectly legal there, and it’s actually overseen by a federal government agency called Health Canada. The interesting thing is that companies from abroad have actually come to invest a lot in this industry, which is a huge boost for the Canadian economy. It’s called the ‘Green Dollar’, and in fact one of the main companies over there, Tweed Marijuana Inc., has a market worth of $101m. In the US, a few states like California and Colorado are on the right track too, but it’s too much of a legal headache for companies to go for, since that kind of legislation is done at state rather than federal level”.
He is of course aware of the bumpy ride ahead. “Because it’s in the interest of the major pharmaceutical companies, lobbying groups and cancer charities to keep it illegal,” he said. “I’m by no means criticising the aims and work people involved in those charities do now. However, the reality is that they’re essentially industries in themselves now. They function like businesses. If cannabis was legalised tomorrow, that’s most of their staff out of a job. And the pharmaceutical companies are basically government-endorsed drug dealers, worse than the cartels and dealers who sell the stuff on street corners. One example is GW Pharmaceuticals, who hold a monopoly on the industry. By stifling competition with prohibition, governments are prohibiting competitors from producing cannabis products which may in fact be better.”
When challenged with the criticism that legalisation would put strain on taxpayers by increasing pressure on the NHS with rising addiction rates, he is largely dismissive. “If you’re going to use the addiction argument, you might as well criminalise the caffeine we’re drinking in our coffees right now, the nicotine in your cigarettes, the alcohol in your booze or the artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke. I’d like to ask those carrying out that particular study about how many of their subjects had a genetic predisposition to addiction. I don’t deny cannabis can be addictive. Any substance can. Though I dispute claims that it’s either the sole or main factor causing such cases. There’s very little scientific data actually corroborating with those findings.”
Northern Ireland is not Canada, or California, or Holland. As reasonable as Donnelly’s demands seem, the idea of such issues being discussed in Stormont seems inconceivable. “I’d like to think it’s around the corner. The socioeconomic benefits are there to see in places I just outlined; and if that’s not good enough, the Green Dollar should surely be a good financial incentive. But of course, everywhere has its own set of different customs and traditions. Some are closer than others. I think education is the key to challenging the taboo surrounding cannabis”. Donnelly’s positivity is refreshing, and perhaps at odds with most politicians. “I mean, the Greens, the Lib Dems, I think they’re on the right track. But at the end of the day, what tangible action has been taken? It’s all well and good for politicians to put on a progressive front that might elicit potential young voters, but it’s solid legislation that matters in the end”.