Ireland has undergone a dramatic evolution in cannabis policy over the last four years. Even if he’d prefer that you focus on the activist families who demanded regulation for their sick kids, that’s thanks in large part to pressure from politicians like Gino Kenny.
“You couldn’t even mention the c-word,” reminisced the socialist Teachta Dála [a.k.a. member of the country’s lower house of Parliament or Dáil], who represents an area of West Dublin.
Kenny was in the middle of a heated re-election campaign when High Times paid a visit to his headquarters in the town of Clondalkin. On the walls were signs pointing to his dedication to social justice; a poster with the Palestine flag, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. hanging over the front door, and a tribute by the bookshelf to Bernadette Devlin, the radical Northern Ireland politician historically elected to Parliament at the age of 21.
We were there to understand how the nose ring-wearing politician went from working in healthcare for senior citizens to walking across the country with families seeking cannabis treatment for sick kids. Kenny shared what it took to introduce the country’s first successful medical marijuana legislation, which passed last year and will reportedly start supplying patients with heavily subsidized medicine within the next couple of months.
The frank-mouthed, notoriously casually attired lawmaker also taught us some key Irish nomenclature — proving himself chalk and cheese compared to the average carefully-spoken politico in a suit.
What was your original impetus to get involved with cannabis issues? You told me that until recently the drug was extremely taboo in Ireland.
GINO KENNY: Just before I was first elected, a family from Clondalkin contacted me in relation to CBD. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Their granddaughter Erica has Dravet syndrome, a form of epilepsy. There’s been a lot of research in the United States and different places [that suggests that] CBD can be quite effective for the condition. There was a prior bill by [current member of the European Parliament and noted Irish cannabis activist] Luke Flanagan in 2013 for the legalization for medical and recreational use. Basically, I looked to his bill and separated the recreational side from the medical side. Just before I was going to submit it, Vera Twomey arrived. Her daughter Ava had the same syndrome as Erica, Dravet syndome epilepsy [author’s note: Twomey wrote a book on their family’s journey to get cannabis treatment for Ava] and she was looking to get access to cannabis-based products, CBD.
I submitted the medical cannabis bill in 2016. I was nervous doing it, but overall the response was very, very positive. And the rest is history, in some ways. That was three and a half years ago, and people’s understanding of the issue has changed fundamentally. It’s like chalk and cheese.
Sorry — chalk and cheese?
GINO KENNY: It’s fundamentally different. Medical cannabis is now legal in Ireland. It took a lot of heartache, a lot of tears and sweat, a lot of persuasion and a lot of frustration to actually get to this point. But we pushed the government into changing the policy.
How would you critique the current Irish medical marijuana system?
GINO KENNY: Well, it’s not up and running at the moment — it will be sometime early this year. The medical cannabis access program, which was basically recommended three years ago from the health regulation board HPRA [Health Products Regulatory Authority] three years ago. To this day, nobody, not one person has been prescribed medical cannabis in this state.
What would you say that the delay has been due to?
GINO KENNY: Institutionalized resistance from the very, very top.
Within the health system?
GINO KENNY: From everywhere. From all strands in relation to this issue. But I think it’s going to start very soon, within the next couple months. The program stipulates three [qualifying] conditions; drug resistant epilepsy, spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and side effects of chemotherapy.
You’ve mentioned that you personally are in favor of recreational legalization. Do you see that as a political possibility for Ireland at some point?
GINO KENNY: I think so, in the future. [Cannabis consumers] were once demonized. But that’s changed dramatically. If somebody wants to use cannabis, that’s their business. To keep driving it underground, it just compounds the issue, and essentially hasn’t worked.
You’ve also been very honest about your past usage of other drugs like ecstasy. Why was it important to you to get that out there?
GINO KENNY: Well, [it was] just [that] somebody asked me! I wasn’t going to say “I’ve used drugs before” because I’ve seen the dark side of drugs, the absolute horrendous effects they can have on individuals and communities. You can’t glamorize drug use. But people use drugs whether we like it or not, you know? I’m not a cannabis user as such. It’s not a big part of my life. But if people want to use it, so be it.
My next question is more of a translation request for our readers outside of Ireland. You used a certain term to express frustration over a drag on medical marijuana legislation at one point. It was “kip”. Can you explain what that word means?
GINO KENNY: The government used a veto on two occasions to stop [our medical marijuana bill] from progressing. It’s extremely frustrating — when you see people who could benefit from medical cannabis suffer, that fucking really gets on my fucking wick. It really, really annoys me when these assholes in suits are trying to prevent and play politics with it. And that’s why I called the place a kip. Kip is like a dive, a mess. It’s a very Dublin word. Obviously I take the job very seriously, but in that moment I called the Dáil a kip. I got reprimanded, but I didn’t apologize for it. I was thinking, Brexit will be essentially finalized by the end of the month, right? Medical cannabis [legislation was approved] on a similar timeline to Brexit, and still hasn’t been finalized. There’s one direction that this is going; people will have greater [cannabis] access over time. But nothing was going to be easy.
Ireland’s medicinal cannabis regulations does not allow for production, excluding potential Irish businesses from participating in what’s becoming a massive global industry. Are there people that are interested in creating a cannabis industry here?
GINO KENNY: There’s a huge amount of people who are interested in growing it here. Yeah, so that is in train. I know the Department of Health has been talking about an indigenous medical cannabis industry in Ireland. I think in the future, definitely. But at the moment, they have to import particular products, GMP [Good Manufacturing Practices, a European certification board] products.
What would you like the rest of the world, the cannabis world, to know about where Ireland stands today?
GINO KENNY: Well at this moment in time, medical cannabis is legal, and the program will be up and running in 2020. It’s been a long, long process. Where we came from, back even four years ago, was nothing. Zip, zero, nothing. The people that have drove this forward and who have been cutting edge of greater access hasn’t been people like me, it has been parents of children or individuals who are quite ill that have seen the benefits of cannabis. Theirs are the narratives that have driven the wedge into something completely draconian.
There’s another sphere to this as a socialist. I think there are alarm bells that need to be rang about corporate cannabis. If people want to make money, that’s fine. But you can see how corporate cannabis is circling the wagons to make a huge amount of profits, and that has to be resisted as much as possible. This is about patients, it’s about people, it’s about farmers, it’s about workers that work with these plants. It’s about sustainability and people getting access relatively cheaply to these products — and it’s not to be monopolized for huge profits.