Roll up, roll up: capitalism will drive cannabis legalisation in Ireland

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It is inevitable that cannabis will be legalised in Ireland in the coming years. It may take five years or even longer for the prohibition to be fully lifted but it is an utter fallacy to suggest this country will resist the inexorable trend that has taken hold in the United States, Canada, Spain and other western countries.

Legalisation is coming, no matter what Irish policymakers may say about the prospect now.

Doctors and campaigners and those who work in criminal justice will argue it out. But they are not the only ones driving the agenda. Once blue-chip international capital begins swirling around an issue – and this has already begun here – the die is basically cast.

That’s a grubby truism, but a truth nonetheless. Companies lobby, they fund major studies to sway opinion, they promise jobs and taxes.

Cannabis is already fully legal for all types of use in Canada. It is a burgeoning industry there funded by Wall Street investors such as Blackrock, Vanguard Group and Morgan Stanley. It is legal for, wink wink, medicinal use in about 33 US states, and recreational use in 11, including big hitters such as California and Illinois. The US is the biggest honey pot for cannabis capitalists.

Cannabis is the next-best thing to legal in Portugal; it’s legal in private in Spain, once you don’t annoy people in public; possession is decriminalised or consumption is effectively tolerated in private in countries such as Israel, the Netherlands, parts of Australia, Austria, and much of Latin America.

New Zealanders will vote on making it legal next year. So it is obvious where global opinion is moving.

Despite the health risks and the fallacious “gateway drug” debate, more solid civil liberties arguments are winning out in country after country. This trend will continue because there are few compelling arguments to reverse it. There are many good arguments for why people should not smoke cannabis or why they should consume it rarely. But they are weak arguments for maintaining legal prohibition in free societies.

Global legal weed sales last year were about $12.2 billion. Analysts at Jeffries say it will be $50 billion by 2029. One Bank of America analyst thinks it could reach $166 billion. The green economy is on its way, so Ireland may as well get ready.

The Government has given the green light to a limited medicinal cannabis programme, but this is a sideshow. Despite what pro-legalisation campaigners might suggest, there is little hard scientific evidence that cannabis is a miracle plant.

Anecdotal evidence suggests it can help some people who are ill. But let us be honest: cannabis is primarily a consumer product, like alcohol. That is how international capital sees it, so it is a fair bet to assume that most laws will eventually reflect this

While society waits for legislators to capitulate to this fundamental truth, the debate in Ireland will centre on medicinal cannabis for now. Old Bord na Móna bogs are being touted by some politicians as possible growth beds for medicinal cannabis, but this is unlikely.

High-grade medicinal cannabis has to be grown in properly-heated indoor factories with lights on timers, not in plastic polytunnels in Offaly.

A major push towards legalisation here may come from US and Canadian cannabis corporations who view Ireland as an obvious jump-off point into the European Union market. Multibillion-dollar behemoths such as Aurora Cannabis, worth $8 billion, and Tilray, worth $3.2 billion, have already declared their intentions to enter the Irish market. Tilray has even set up an Irish division, Tilray Ventures.

Some prominent players in the Irish health sector are involved in the cannabis industry, so the establishment mood music may already be changing. Ireland is a global pharma stronghold.

GW Pharmaceuticals is a top-five listed cannabis stock, a weed-as-medicine pure-play worth $4.7 billion. Tom Lynch, of Elan and Amarin fame, sits on its board. He is also chairman of the State’s Ireland East Hospitals Group, which oversees hospitals including the Mater and St Vincent’s in Dublin.

Eventually, however, big consumer companies will come knocking to Ireland, as they are to countries all over Europe. Province Brands, a Canadian cannabis drinks brewer, is planning to launch products here next year, albeit just with cannabidiol (CBD), which doesn’t make you high.

Cronos Group, worth $5.4 billion, one of the biggest recreational weed companies in the world, last year set up Cronos Group Celtic Holdings in Dublin. Cannabis remains illegal here. But Cronos didn’t make a move like that for the good of its health, or anyone else’s. It probably sees the future: full legalisation, eventually.

All of this money talk will be understandably galling for anti-legalisation campaigners, including medical professionals who warn of the mental health dangers and cannabis addiction. Consumption by young people can be especially dangerous. Yet, prohibition does not alleviate health risks. It criminalises them.

A major flaw in the argument of those who campaign to maintain the prohibition on health grounds is that they can habitually or flippantly fail to distinguish between egregious cannabis abuse and occasional cannabis use. Abuse and use are poles apart.

Most users of alcohol are not raging drunks who reach for a bottle of vodka upon wakening up. Most recreational cannabis users are not everyday-toking stoners with mental health issues. Various studies have put the prevalence of problematic cannabis consumption from about 15 per cent of users to as high as 25 per cent or even above.

That may be a cause for concern, but it is not an iron-clad argument to keep cannabis illegal. Problems exist on a spectrum from minor to major. The US National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 9 per cent of cannabis users are dependent.

That is not out of line with the proportion for drinkers.

Alcohol laws are not framed solely to deal with alcoholics, because most of us just like the odd drink and the law recognises the right to indulge. There is a strong argument that cannabis laws in a free society should be similarly framed.

All the while, the debate will rage on as much of the world continues to move towards further relaxation of cannabis laws. Ireland will not be an outlier. The hard-nosed world of business will see to that.

FOOTNOTES

There is an ongoing boardroom row at the Hermitage Clinic private medical facility over the future of its long-serving chief executive, Eamonn Fitzgerald. But the world keeps on moving, and so do the members of the board.

Larry Goodman, a 31 per cent shareholder, has stepped down from the board. He has been replaced by former KPMG managing partner and one-time Telecom Éireann chairman Ron Bolger, who has close links to Goodman.

Goodman has an agreement to buy out the 31 per cent stake of fellow investor, Sean Mulryan. If and when that deal is consummated, he will gain majority control of the hospital. But at least he won’t have to attend pesky board meetings.

– There are legal issues ahead for investors in Finnstown Castle hotel in Dublin, which has for years been associated with members of the Mansfield family.

The hotel was bought by the late Jim Mansfield at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, but he lost control of it in the crash and it was sold a few years later for a knockdown price to Louth businessman Kevin McGeough.

He brought the Mansfields in to run it, and the family regained control of the hotel in 2013 using a company, Finnstown House 2012 SPV. McGeough, however, recently registered a ‘lis pendens’, or notice of legal action, on the Land Registry file for the property, warning of future court action that may affect the company’s interest.

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