Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol – Who are they and what do they want?

I met 3 of the Northern Irish parliamentary candidates for the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol party to discuss their campaign, their goals and ambitions. Barry Brown (West Tyrone), Glenn Donnelly (North Down) & Neil Paine (East Londonderry) are all standing for the single-issue party in the 2015 general election but they admit that they are quite late to the table for this vote, with firm eyes on the 2016 Assembly elections.

I asked them all the normal questions that you would expect, “gateway drug”, “addiction”, “in what way is it safer than alcohol” and they have decent answers, which is important because as a single issue party they really need to be all over this issue. The party was set up by Paul Birch, who made his money by selling Bebo, he then invested £100,000 to form CISTA with the bold claim “The war on drugs has been lost.” This to me is a misguided tone to take, “the war on drugs is lost…so lets admit defeat and just go with the drugs?”. On principle, I agree that cannabis should be made available to the public, at least medicinally, the uses are well documented and even the Israeli Army has condoned the use of Cannabis to assist with PTSD treatment.

That cannabis has useful properties is established, but is the time right for a wholesale change in legislation? The 3 candidates all spoke with strong conviction and with a good knowledge base, they were able to cite various figures from different studies across the world, most notably Colorado, where the legalisation begun on 1st January 2014. The number of drug related crimes held steady or dropped, traffic deaths had no notable affect and in 2014 retail and medical weed generated more than $60 million in tax/licensing revenue for the state, that stayed within the state. CISTA talk passionately about how Northern Ireland could be a testing ground for this kind of law in the UK, encouraging a whole industry to establish itself both directly and on the periphery of cannabis. From dispensaries and growers through to the construction industry using hempcrete as a building material and plenty of other benefits to be reaped. A problem arises when comparing like for like, Northern Ireland is not Amsterdam, it isn’t Colorado…are we open and accepting to something like this? Are there enough people advocating change in this area to get behind just one issue at the expense of having your voice heard in parliament on issues such as fracking, trident, EU referendum etc. The candidates stated that they intend to crowd source other policies, that there is such overwhelming emperical evidence to support their cannabis policy that they would seek to legislate based on a similar approach, put bare facts out into the electorate, let them judge and have their say online as to what the party line should be, direct democracy essentially. Facts however can be spun both ways, “lies, damn lies & statistics” whilst CISTA claim that cannabis is indeed safer than alcohol, statistics on cannabis use aren’t exactly accurate. I asked what research into cannabis effects, facts & figures, public approval etc, had been undertaken by the party, with a relatively large amount of money being put in by their founder…none had been undertaken. When legal highs are so prominent on the public agenda, with seemingly incident after incident and legislators falling over themselves to try to write the golden law to save lives, are they now going to see cannabis as a safe topic to broach?

The Green Party in the UK have approached the subject in numerous manifestos, in Northern Ireland however this isn’t the case, there is no mention of it in the 2015 general election manifesto launched this week. Glenn Donnelly, North Down candidate, said that he had received support from the brother of Steven Agnew MLA. This is where CISTA hope they can make inroads in 2016, Steven Agnew was elected in 2011 on the 11th count with only 2,207 1st preference votes, Leslie Cree of UUP with just 1585 1st preference. In West Tyrone also, where Barry Brown is standing, he hopes that in 2016 he could pick up enough transfer votes to challenge an SDLP seat. CISTA sit comfortably in the “other” category of northern irish politics, espousing a need to move beyond potential referendum parties, until such a referendum is called, it matters not what a party considers the constitutional issue. Whilst this is refreshing and should be applauded, I can’t escape the single issue nature of the party. I asked them, if elected, would they seek to add their members to a coalition, those present all expressed no wish to shore up a conservative led coalition, but that cannabis policy would naturally be their red-line issue. It isn’t necessarily that CISTA wish for cannabis to be made legal thankyouverymuch, they recognise that it is such a divisive issue amongst citizens and elected representatives, they are calling for a royal commission on the subject. Royal commissions aren’t exactly rare, 16 in the last 100 years but only 2 of those have been in the last 30 years, the party hope that the results of a royal commission would compel law makers to modernise the system. The CISTA members I met with all seemed to have a medical reason for marijuana use, which is a lot easier to get behind, as stated by Glenn Donnelly, “opiates are prescribed on the NHS, why is cannabis seen as worse?” They spoke eloquently about the different constituent parts of cannabis, the different strains (brands?) that can have different affects and used for various purposes, to be honest it was all beyond me at this stage, THC etc is something I just know nothing about, I defer to people wiser than I at this stage, which I suppose is where a royal commission could come in.

I applaud anybody who stands for election, to put your name in front of your fellow citizens and ask them to judge you is a bold move, but in Northern Ireland, is legalising a drug going to galvanize a community in progress..? One candidate said that they would be flyering and putting up posters but canvassing could be an issue in some areas, “drug dealers out” is potentially, to some people, a very small distinction from “people trying to legalise drugs out” one which certain elements of certain communities may not see. For that, I pity CISTA. They are without doubt on the right side of history, this law will change, but is Northern Ireland going to plough the way in these isles, or like most issues, will we lag decades behind. Like Easter Licensing for myself, they have an issue that the ybelieve in so strongly that they simply had to take action, I can empathise with that, but I suspect that electoral deposits will be lost and researching and producing irrefutable evidence for change would be better served than a protest vote on a ballot. Good luck to the guys, they will most definitely need it.

You can watch the CISTA Party Election Broadcast here

Kris tweets ferociously as @belfastbarman and runs an associated site, where he occasionally opines his views. He lived abroad for a while and as such, feels he will never really ‘get’ this place. Formerly a barman, he regularly broke the cardinal rules of, “No politics or religion in the pub,” as such, he turned to writing. Previously a stand up comedian and an animal crematorium assistant, now works in marketing and is a recently joined member of the Alliance Party.