As the cannabis legalization movement spreads across the globe, regular users are getting caught in the crosshairs of authorities desperate to hold onto the old regime. Ireland is a country that lags way behind its European neighbors in terms of developing a new legal framework for the legalization of cannabis. John O’Regan is an Irish citizen who has experienced firsthand the cost of getting caught with weed.
His run-ins with the law began seven years ago, and have resulted in a number of charges, including cultivation, possession and trafficking. In November 2022, he was cleared of trafficking but was charged with possession and cultivation. He’s currently awaiting sentencing, which may include a custodial sentence. Sadly, his story is not unique, but it also clearly illustrates the trauma inflicted on regular users when they are treated like criminals.
QUESTION: Can you explain what first brought you to the attention of the Irish Gardaí (the police force in Ireland are known as Gardaí)?
In 2015 I was knocked off my bike, and the officer who questioned me about the incident, a very nice guy, said he’d do everything in his power to find out who did it. Six months later, he decided to call round to my flat to update me on the case. Now, the only reason he called to my house was because he was a nice guy and wanted to show he was taking the case seriously. So here we are, six months later and there are three officers knocking on my door at six in the evening.
I’d just had my dinner and was having a smoke. I couldn’t open the door because they would have gotten the whiff of weed. They twigged something was up. The next day, the Gardaí came back, this time with a warrant, and that was the first time they raided my flat. That was the beginning of seven years of hell for me.
QUESTION: What was it like being raided the first time?
Awful. Again, they called around to my flat about six in the evening, and this time I’d been in bed all afternoon. So when they called around, I stuck my head out the window to let them know I’d open the door. The key was on my nightstand so I had to go back inside to the room to get it, and I told them so. Once they heard that, they lost it, started shouting up at me, telling me to open the door immediately or they’d break it down. I was telling them I couldn’t open the door without a key. At one point, one of the officers picked up a rock and aimed for the window. The blood drained from my face. As soon as that happened, the officer smiled, like he was happy to see how scared or unnerved he’d made me. I had about 8 plants at the time, four flowering, and four in vegetative state.
QUESTION: Once you’d come to the attention of the police, why did you keep growing?
The way I calculate it, it costs me about 40euro to grow one plant, maybe a bit more now that energy prices have gone up, but around that. Of course, that’s not how the police look at it. They value each plant at 800euro on the assumption there’s a yield of 40grams from each plant. So when they caught me with the four flowering plants, they claimed my grow had a value of more than 3,000euro. They’re thinking about potential profit whereas I’m thinking about how much I can save.
QUESTION: Why were you charged with cultivation and possession?
In 2018, I was going to a 420 event in Dublin, and decided to get some t-shirts printed up with The Irish Cannabis Party logo on them. I’m not sure what happened exactly but reckon that somebody in the sorting office must have seen the logo through the packaging, and spotted the word “cannabis.” I got home one day on a Tuesday and five minutes later, the Ennis Drug Squad was in my flat expecting to find a drug haul. When they saw the t-shirts they were fuming. I’m not sure what they were expecting?
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Who would send a delivery of cannabis with the word “cannabis” clearly visible on the package? Anyway, they didn’t find any drugs in the postal package but they did find the plants that I was growing in my spare room. I had 16 plants in the room and they calculated the total dry weight to be over the limit of 13,000 euro. If the Gardaí find an amount greater than that, they automatically assume you’re dealing.
QUESTION: Did they charge you straight away?
Actually no, that took a few years. When they came around to the flat that day in 2018, they took my phone, a ballast, a reflector and two fans. In 2020, more than eighteen months later, I happened to be talking to a retired police officer, and I asked him if the statute of limitations had passed on the case? He said they should have charged me within a year. Because they hadn’t issued any charges, I sent a registered letter asking for the return of my equipment. That brought me back to their attention, and finally, almost two years later, charges were issued.
QUESTION: Why grow 16 plants, why not grow less and stay under the radar?
It was purely experimental. I’d actually just bought another reflector and wanted to see if I could make better use of the room I was using to grow. I didn’t spend much money on the equipment, in fact, I was using the cheapest stuff I could find. I also have a friend with MS, and had it in the back of my mind to start giving him flower to help him out. But to be honest, there was nothing professional about this grow room. All the plants were at different heights, some flowering, some not. The Gardaí called it “a sophisticated operation,” which was laughable. The room was a mess.
QUESTION: Why did you send that letter?
Because I’m also interested in changing the law, and know there are surely thousands of people in Ireland waiting for the day that they can light up in peace at home without having to worry about that dreaded knock on the door. Plus, I thought it was safe. But I was wrong. They could still prosecute me, and they did.
QUESTION: Your court case came up in November 2022. What was it like?
What really struck me about the court proceedings was the way the Gardaí manipulated language when presenting evidence. For example, one of the officers referred to my timer as a “thermostat,” and the lamps as “heaters,” and called the grow, “sophisticated.” In reality, I had a couple of LED bulbs and plants in pots dotted around the room, but they made it sound very different to the judge and the jury. I mean everyone knows what bulbs are but if you start calling them “heaters,” and calling timers “thermostats,” it’s going to confuse people.
QUESTION: What is your sentence?
I was found guilty of possession and cultivation in the circuit court. There’ll be a hearing in December, and at that hearing they decide the date for sentencing, which could be some time next spring. I’ve no idea if it will be a custodial sentence, but I have to be prepared for that possibility.
QUESTION: What are the different ways this case has affected you?
I don’t get stopped all the time but sometimes it feels that way. At this stage, my flat has been raided six or seven times, and I’ve been picked up off the street twice. Now, every time I leave my flat and spot a cop car on the street, I freeze. That’s what happened Christmas week 2020. It was about half past nine in the morning and I was going into town to do some shopping. The Gardaí station is next door to the supermarket. A Garda car came racing around the corner with three officers, pulled up alongside me, one of them jumped out and started shouting: “You’re under arrest.” It was like being in a movie.
They kept asking for my name, but I wouldn’t give it. And when they told me to get into the car, I asked what I was being arrested for? At the time, they said it was drug-related. Later, I found out I was arrested under Section 20, which is Public Order Offense, and apparently if you’re arrested under this section, you’re obliged by law to give your name and address. I mean, it was half nine in the morning, I wasn’t drunk, wasn’t bothering anyone. They brought me down to the station, strip-searched me, and put me in a cell. And when I was in the station, one of the officers who knew me came in and asked what was going on, why they’d picked me up? They replied it was something to do with the way I was looking at them. And this Garda replies: “He was looking at you because we keep arresting him.”
When I finally spoke to my solicitor about it, he said I’d have to plead guilty because it’s an offense not to give your name under Section 20. As soon as I pleaded guilty in court, the judge roared at the top of his voice, “Drugs!” He wouldn’t let my solicitor apply for anything, kept cutting him off, repeating the word, “drugs, drugs,” and fined me 200euro. So, not only did they ruin my Christmas, they managed to get a conviction out of it. Now, that’s on my record, and I’m sure it affected the outcome on this case.
If a judge looks at a case and see just cultivation, for example, it’s one thing, but lined up next to a Public Order conviction, of course, he’s going to assume this person is a nuisance. It sounds small but all these things add up, and really take a toll. Right now, getting caught with weed in Ireland has a cost, mentally. I’m on a waiting list to talk with a counselor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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