Garda and Customs have launched a crackdown on shops and cafes selling cannabis derivatives in recent weeks with owners facing the possibility of lengthy prison terms.
There is widespread confusion among sellers and consumers about the legality of Cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike other derivatives of the cannabis plant, CBD is not psychoactive and is mostly legal throughout Europe.
Much of the confusion stems from the various laws and regulations concerning such products in Ireland. Under EU regulations plants containing CBD may be grown as long as their THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) content – the psychoactive component – is less than 0.2 per cent. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) even subsidises production in some countries.
In Ireland cannabis or hemp may be grown as a food product under the same conditions. However under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 all derivatives of cannabis and hemp containing THC are illegal, even if they contain only trace amounts.
The Department of Health says it hopes to amend the legislation to explicitly permit CBD products like those seized in recent weeks.
In recent weeks drug-squad detectives have raided at least four shops and cafes selling CBD products. In one raid last week gardaí working with customs officials confiscated €10,000 worth of plant products including tea and hemp flowers from the owners of the Little Collins Dispensary in Galway. Owner JP O’Brien told The Irish Times he had ordered two boxes of CBD products a week previously which never arrived. He and his wife assumed the items had been seized by customs as this had happened before.
Last Friday his wife Ide Clancy got a text from someone claiming to be a courier asking her to meet him at her house to take possession of the boxes. Suspecting this was a Garda sting operation, Ms Clancy refused and told them to drop the items in the back.
“An hour or two later eight plain-clothes gardaí raided the shop and seized all tea and hemp products,” Mr O’Brien said. Gardaí also kicked down the door of their house and searched the premises, “underwear drawers, documents, everything”, he said.
Mr O’Brien said he and his wife are “extremely worried” about prosecution. Although the product had a wholesale value of about €10,000, gardaí are likely to judge it to be worth much more, enough to warrant a presumptive mandatory minimum 10-year sentence from the courts.
He said when he first started selling CBD products two years ago he invited Youghal gardaí into the store and explained it to them. He said he had no problems with gardaí until seven months ago when two drugs squad members arrived and asked to take away some of the produce for sampling.
Two weeks ago gardaí executed a search warrant on his store and seized about 2kgs of product, worth just over €2,000.
“All our stuff is tested as having less than 0.2 per cent [THC] and grown legally in Europe,” he said.
There are now dozens of cafes, vape shops and health food stores selling CBD products including well-known chains such as Holland and Barrett. Mr Weathers said there is frustration in the community that smaller stores are being targeted while large organisations seem to be left alone.
He said there are seven shops near him selling CBD. Mr Weathers said he met a senior garda on Thursday who told him all of those stores will be inspected and given between one and four weeks to get rid of their products or face prosecution.
“Gardaí are oblivious to it. They don’t know the rules so they are classifying it all as cannabis. It is the same species of plant but there is a tremendous difference, one has a psychoactive effect and one doesn’t,” Mr Weathers said.
Two weeks ago a shop in Cork was raided with gardaí seizing, by their valuation, €44,000 worth of CBD product.
There is ongoing debate about the usefulness of CBD. Proponents say it helps with anxiety, inflammation, pain and a host of other ailments. Others criticise it as merely the latest health fad. It is also growing in popularity as a relaxant, although many who try it say, unlike regular cannabis, it has little noticeable affect.
Mr Weathers says it is popular among elderly women who use it to ease their arthritis.
Gardaí and Revenue have not responded to a request for comment on the legality of CBD products or their enforcement policies.
The Department of Health said CBD products containing even trace amounts of THC are considered illegal drugs. However, a spokeswoman said there are plans to change legislation to legalise the sale of products containing less than 0.3 per cent THC.
For now it appears the authorities have opted for a zero-tolerance approach to the issue. Last month Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue told the Dáil that those caught selling CBD containing any amount of THC face having the product seized.