| 8.5°C Dublin

Olaf Tyaransen: Ming and me

Holy smoke! The spliff almost fell from my mouth upon hearing the news that Luke 'Ming' Flanagan was giving up the weed. Actually, it didn't (it was in the ashtray).

No surprises there, really, just a certain inevitability. Following the South Leitrim-Roscommon Independent TD's recent election, it was pretty much guaranteed that the heat would be turned up on his flagrant and fragrant illegal lifestyle.

Flanagan made the announcement on Today FM's Last Word on Wednesday (though he only pledged to stop smoking "in the Republic of Ireland").

His move came after a Fianna Fail councillor, John Coonan from Kilkenny, lodged a formal complaint to gardai about Flanagan's cannabis use.

A threatening editorial in the Garda Review magazine, which warned that it would make a mockery of the justice system if our elected representatives openly flouted the law, probably forced his decision.

As the proud father of two young girls, Flanagan was doubtless feeling the pressure. "It would not be good for my family for the gardai to be coming around to my house and annoying us about this," he told host Anton Savage.

Prohibition

"It is a tough decision, it is a difficult decision but it is the only logical decision I can make. My children are more important to me than anyone else on this planet, and my wife equally so."

However, he maintained that he would still be campaigning against prohibition: "If I want to get cannabis legalised the best place for me to do that is in Dail Eireann ... eventually I will be taken out of the Dail, and people who want cannabis legalised will no longer have a voice in the Dail."

For the record, I don't know Ming especially well, though we've crossed paths on several occasions. Initially, we crossed swords.

In 1996, following a fortuitous meeting backstage at The Late Late Show, myself and law lecturer Tim Murphy decided to form a political party -- the Cannabis Legalisation Party -- and run in the general election the following year.

We wrote a manifesto, launched a website, paid our deposits, and set about campaigning -- me in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Tim in Cork South Central.

As things turned out, the registrar refused to recognise the CLP as a legitimate party, resulting in a hearing in Leinster House (I was legally represented by the fiery Ivana Bacik), but that's a different story for a different day.

Despite the supposedly controversial nature of our stance, our intention was to play it completely straight throughout the campaign.

We wore suits, sober smiles, and were well armed with all sorts of facts, figures and statistics.

So we were less than happy to hear about a Galway candidate styling himself after Ming The Merciless, and running what appeared to be a cartoonish campaign (though he polled more than we did).

The fact that I'm also from Galway and have an unusual name led many lazy journalists to the conclusion that we were connected.

In fact, we were connected only by the shared belief that the war against drugs is a total failure and those responsible for the prohibitionist policies will be regarded as criminally complacent by future generations.

During the campaign I was interviewed by a college newspaper and the young student journalist asked me my opinion of Ming. Foolishly, I gave him a strictly off-the-record reply. The full page interview appeared under the imaginative headline 'Olaf Tyaransen Interview' and featured a big picture of Ming (confusingly, none of me). Under Ming's picture was the caption: "I don't take this man seriously." Never trust a student journalist!

Needless to say, Ming was less than pleased. He rang me up, we had a furious row and, although we both telephonically contributed to various radio discussions over the intervening years, we didn't speak directly again for more than a decade.

It wasn't until 2009 that we met face-to-face in UCD and buried the hatchet. We were debating against former UK Met chief Ian Blair and Dr David Murray of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. We actually lost the debate, though the presence of so many armed Special Branch detectives in the hall definitely went against us when it came to the show of hands.

We met again last November at the Dublin premiere of the Howard Marks biopic Mr Nice. Most recently, we met last January in his Roscommon constituency office when I interviewed him, proudly wearing his mayoral chains, for Hot Press.

I was struck by how much he'd matured as a person and as a politician. He was passionate, articulate, informed, and brimming with fresh ideas.

Most importantly, he was totally bullshit-free.

On Thursday I was invited onto The Last Word to discuss Flanagan's decision. Anton Savage asked me if I thought his supporters would be disappointed. I told him that I felt he'd been elected in spite of, rather than because of, his attitude towards cannabis.

Legalised

After all, given the dearth of young people in both counties, neither Leitrim or Roscommon could be considered centres of the dope-smoking universe.

When Savage challenged the notion that he could ever get cannabis legalised in Ireland, I replied that at least he's not a lone voice in the Dail chambers.

Mick Wallace and Emmet Stagg have both come out in favour of ending the prohibition. Okay, that's only three out of 166 TDs... but it's a start.

We didn't get around to discussing it in great detail, but I would have liked to have made the point that, although he was breaking the law, Flanagan was doing absolutely nothing wrong.

He reportedly grows his own cannabis so he's not putting money into the hands of criminals.

To those who argue that smoking cannabis is morally wrong, I'd like to refer them to Genesis 1:29: "And God said, 'Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed: to you it shall be for meat'."

Or food for thought.

hnews@herald.ie