1997: Ming And The Cannabis Legalisation Party

By Brian Houlihan

1997 Election Literature

The recent rejection of Gino Kenny’s medical cannabis bill by the health committee is the latest example of Irish politicians and cannabis policy mixing. While nowadays we are used to the cannabis debate taking on a political element there was a time that was taboo.

Even mere debate among the media and public was once rare but that has now all changed. It’s a change that has its roots in events 20 years ago during the 1997 General Elections when a number of candidates promoted cannabis legalisation.

Often when one thinks of cannabis activism in Ireland one name comes to mind, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. In fact until the emergence of activists such as Vera Twomey and Gino Kenny it might have been the only name people knew. It is the 20th anniversary this year of when Luke first emerged on the Irish political scene.

Yet when Luke first arrived on the scene in 1997 he was not alone. Olaf Tyaransen a journalist and author stood as a candidate in the Dublin constituency of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. In Cork the UCC law lecturer Dr. Tim Murphy stood in the South Central constituency. All three were candidates openly promoting cannabis legalisation.

Olaf and Tim became friends after meeting backstage at the Late Late Show and subsequently agreed to launch the cannabis legalisation party. Olaf and Tim filed the relevant papers but weren’t allowed official recognition for the party. Ivana Bacick, a current Labour Senator and advocate of cannabis law reform, highlighted their concerns at the time but to no avail.

For context it is worth highlighting that around the same time in the UK the Legalise Cannabis Alliance stood candidates including Howard Marks without success. So interestingly on the two islands similar cannabis activism events were unfolding at the same time.

Olaf’s election literature.

During the 1997 election Luke, Olaf, and Tim were not working together. However with their common cause, and the proximity of Luke and Olaf (both based in the Galway area), it was often portrayed that they were.

In fact Olaf and others seemingly found Luke’s campaign a little too colorful. Indeed many probably still find Luke too colorful. Olaf and Tim were attempting a more straightforward political approach and were presenting themselves in suits. Luke had adopted the nickname ‘Ming’ and with his eccentric appearance and actions was seen as a caricature candidate by many.

Sadly none of the three were elected and neither Olaf or Tim would contest election again. For Luke it was just the first of many elections. Ultimately the cannabis legalisation party never materialised into anything more than an aspiration, although not without Olaf and Tim trying.

Howard Marks and Olaf Tyaransen in the late 1990's

Interestingly there are a number of links and continuations from events in 1997 to the present day. The obvious one is Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who went on to become a Councillor, then a Mayor, then a TD and is now an MEP. He put forward the Cannabis Regulation Bill in 2013, and has been vocal on cannabis for two decades.

Olaf Tyaransen continues to work as a journalist and author, including for Hot Press Magazine, a publication long associated with drug policy reform. Olaf has also continued to regularly speak out on the issue of cannabis regulation.

Dr. Tim Murphy still occasional writes about drug policy although he hasn’t kept himself in the public eye. In 2011 his former workplace (UCC) became the first university with a Students For Sensible Drug Policy Ireland chapter. It’s worth noting Howard Marks was among those who came to Cork to work with SSDP Ireland.

In 2014 I stood for election the South Central constituency in the local elections. Many areas in the electoral ward were ones that Dr. Murphy contested almost two decades earlier. Cork has also been the focus of attention recently with the stories of Tristan and Ava catching the local imagination before going national.

In 1997 I was 11 and thus I was unaware of what was happening. However, in my subsequent teenage years I would learn of the individuals from this period and be inspired by them. A few more years later I would even have the privilege to meet and work with most of them.

Thankfully these days we have more politicians and members of the public open about their use. While cannabis reform may have seemed like a distant dream in 1997 it now seems an inevitability, despite the recent setbacks.

We just need to speed things up and make sure things are done correctly.

(Excerpts of this blog originally appeared on the Irish Cannabis Blog in 2014)

Brian Houlihan is the curator of the Dublin Hemp Museum and regularly writes about hemp. Follow him on Twitter @dubhempmuseum and@houlihanbrian. You can also find the museum on Facebook.

You can find an archive of my blog posts here