Anti-cannabis group met privately with drugs minister to discuss possible RSA-style ad campaign

Anti-cannabis group met privately with drugs minister to discuss possible RSA-style ad campaign

A GROUP OF doctors which warned against the liberalisation of Ireland’s drug laws at an Oireachtas committee last week privately met the junior minister responsible for the country’s drug strategy last year, The Journal can reveal.

The Cannabis Risk Alliance told junior health minister Frank Feighan that there should be “full transparency” around lobbyists and advocates who engage with his department on drugs policy – but a loophole in lobbying laws mean that the group’s communications with the Government do not themselves have to be recorded on the Lobbying Register.

The alliance comprises 20 GPs, psychiatrists and other medical experts who have raised concerns about the use of cannabis in recent years including a high-profile letter in the Irish Times which claimed that Ireland is “sleepwalking” into more liberal drug laws.

They say their aim is to educate the public, health professionals and policymakers on “the risks of cannabis use” and the role of cannabis laws in discouraging the use of the drug.

Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that members of the Cannabis Risk Alliance met with Feighan to discuss cannabis policy in January 2021.

The group first sought the meeting in December 2020, when it wrote to Feighan about an opportunity to discuss with him their concerns about “escalating cannabis harm in Ireland” in his capacity as minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy.

“We perceive this as an urgent issue of public health. We hope that you will agree to meet with our group to discuss our concerns about cannabis and to seek your support for more urgent action,” a letter signed by two members of the alliance reads.

The agenda for the meeting, also released under FOI, claimed that the media was overlooking the harms of cannabis in favour of “positive messaging” and contained a call for a “sustained public information campaign on cannabis-related risks” similar to Road Safety Authority ads.

The agenda also said that the term ‘medical cannabis’, which the alliance has previously described as a “Trojan Horse” for the wider liberalisation of drugs laws, should be avoided because it “misleads the public” and “promotes confusion”.

And it emphasised the importance of “full transparency regarding funding and conflicts of interest” among industry groups, lobbyists and advocates who engaged with the department, saying in its proposed agenda that this was “extremely important”.

But despite this and its own communications with the Government about Ireland’s drugs policy, the Cannabis Risk Alliance has not had to reveal details of its lobbying because of a loophole in lobbying legislation. 

Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act, groups are required to record so-called “lobbying activities” with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) if they communicate, even indirectly, with ministers or junior ministers about ‘relevant matters’, which can include the development of “any public policy or of any public programme”.

Relevant returns are published three times a year on the Lobbying Register, which detail which public officials were lobbied, the names of the groups that lobbied them, and what they were lobbied about.

However, advocacy bodies who lobby public figures are only required to submit returns on the register if they have a full-time employee.

The Cannabis Risk Alliance told the Oireachtas Justice Committee last week that it does not have any full-time employees, meaning the group therefore falls outside rules which require it to inform SIPO of its communications or meetings with public officials.

The Government is currently aiming to close this loophole under the Regulation of Lobbying (Amendment) Bill, which would see representative bodies and groups brought within the scope of the Lobbying Act regardless of the number of employees they have.

Dr Garrett McGovern, a GP specialising in addiction medicine who also gave testimony to TDs in committee last week, questioned why the group had access to Feighan to discuss drug policy when those advocating for a different approach found access more difficult.

“This is a bit nuanced and it is a very contentious issue,” McGovern told The Journal.

“And it would seem to me that if Frank Feighan was willing to meet with one group, he should have met another group who are pro-cannabis legalisation and against prohibition.

“He seems to be very favourable towards this group, but there’s been no right of reply or rebuttal of anything they said.

“I think if he’s going to meet people, it needs to be done fairly and with balance.”

Mid-term review

After contacting Feighan’s department in December 2020, five members of the group – Dr Ray Walley, Professor Mary Cannon, Dr Matthew Sadlier, Dr Bobby Smyth and Dr Hugh Gallagher – met the junior minister virtually on 26 January last year.

In follow-up letter sent to Walley on 1 February, Feighan said he would be happy to have further engagement with the group on its work and that the department would take into account its views in its mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy.

“I would like to thank both you and your colleagues from the Cannabis Risk Alliance for taking the time to meet with myself and officials from the Department of Health last Tuesday,” he said.

“I found our meeting to be informative and thought-provoking. I fully support your concerns about the harms associated with cannabis use and am committed to increasing awareness of these harms.”

Feighan also said that he would share the group’s concerns about the Medical Cannabis Access Programme – which gives patients who have one of three specific conditions access to the drug for medical reasons – to officials in his department.

Records also show that the Cannabis Risk Alliance sought a meeting with then-Health Minister Simon Harris in June 2019 to discuss the National Drugs Strategy, though the Fine Gael TD’s secretary informed them that he was unavailable.

“There are no plans to legalise cannabis in Ireland,” Harris’ private secretary wrote in response to the group’s request.

“It is important that the Department’s work on medical cannabis is not misinterpreted as seeking to decriminalise or legalise access to controlled drugs, or as promoting the use of cannabinoids or diminishing the harms associated with illicit use.”

The Journal sought a statement from the Cannabis Risk Alliance regarding its communications with the two ministers and its meeting with Feighan, but no response was received by the time of publication.

Transparency Ireland Chief Executive John Devitt welcomed the closing of the loophole which enables groups without full-time employees to avoid being designated as lobbyists.

However, he said Transparency Ireland had not received any complaints about individuals or organisations here purposely using the loophole to hide their communications.

The Journal also contacted the Department of Health asking if how many times the Cannabis Risk Alliance had met with Feighan to discuss drugs policy and to what extent he had taken on board the group’s views in the course of his work.

A departmental spokesperson did not specifically answer the questions asked, but said that “substance misuse prevention” strategies needed to be evidence-based and targeted to promote “health and well-being among the general population”.

They also said that six strategic priorities had been identified within a recently conducted mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy.

“The first of these aims to strengthen the prevention of drug and alcohol use and the associated harms among children and young people,” a statement said.

“An implementation group has been established to focus on the progression of this priority for the second half of the National Drugs Strategy’s programme.”

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