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Time for genuine drugs debate

DEPUTY Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan has used Class A drugs, such as cocaine and LSD, in the past. This was news in the Irish media this week. He stated that his experiences were mainly negative and that people should be aware of the potential pitfalls of using such substances.


The response of the anti-drug lobby was sought and they pronounced themselves pleased, saying that as long as he was not advocating their use and spoke of the negative aspects, they were happy to let him make his comments. Although a long-time advocate of the legalisation of cannabis, it was interesting to see the independent TD sticking his head above the parapet on this issue. Despite the fact that many people around the world are coming to the realisation that the ‘war on drugs’ is a failure, it is still politically toxic to ask for a reasoned debate on the issue. There is a startling dissonance between everyday political discourse and the reasonable discussion of drug policy.

It was interesting to note that on the same day The Irish Times published the story regarding Deputy Flanagan’s comments to the Irish Mail on Sunday, it also carried a story about the discovery by gardaí of a suspected amphetamine lab in Youghal. Youghal may no longer be a rural backwater but it certainly is not New York or Columbia. The fact that a production facility is being founded there would suggest there is demand in the county generally and perhaps further afield, if the people responsible were intent on making it a large centre of production. This case illustrates what most people around the country can recognise if they wish – that people in Ireland are using illegal drugs on a regular basis.

The ‘war on drugs’ has cost $2.5 trillion and was set in motion by Richard Nixon in 1971. Despite the long-running international campaign, the drug trade was worth $320 billion a year as of 2012. A kilo of pure cocaine costs $1,000 when it leaves Colombia. By the time it reaches the streets of the United States, it can be worth $170,000.

For somewhere as far down the chain of consumption as Ireland, this cost will have probably increased even more significantly. What is more likely is that the cocaine will have been cut and re-cut multiple times with any number of additives and contaminants, meaning what revellers in Clare are snorting is unlikely to contain anything more than a meagre percentage concentration of the infamous white powder. What people are ingesting is anyone’s guess and, of course, so are the consequences of that ingestion.

Despite the abstinence campaigns that have accompanied the ‘war’ the UN estimates there are 230 million drug users in the world and 90% of them are classified as not problematic. This raises the issue of education. The message of abstinence that is peddled to young people does highlight the real threat to health that goes with the territory of drug use but it also overplays it. Young people are not idiots and soon realise that not everybody who uses drugs is an addict and that despite what soap operas portray, not everybody who uses recreationally sees their life spin out of control within weeks.

It is understandable that there is an ingrained fear on the part of parents to openly encourage their children to experiment sensibly with drugs on a recreational basis, given the legal implications that come with being caught. This makes many of them hypocrites because in their youth they will have known people who used those same drugs with little negative effect.

It is, however, imperative on every parent to do their best by their child and imbuing them with a sense of reason with regard to the reality of partaking in certain substances. How this lies with the official legal and societal line on those substances creates an uncomfortable and ultimately destructive dichotomy between parents as the champions of official right and wrong and parents as guardians.

If, as with alcohol, parents could be free to have a conversation with their children about the reality of safe chemical use and the adverse effects of overuse, then a more open and beneficial understanding could be reached. Unfortunately, as things stand, youthful experimentation can currently lead to a criminal branding for those who are caught, which will live with them for the rest of their lives.

There will always be problem users of every substance but the literature tells us that these people latch onto substances mainly for emotional reasons, as well as the physically addictive properties of the substances themselves. If, as has happened in Portugal since 2001, people with such problems are given treatment, rather than jail time, the number of addicts decreases significantly. Since Portugal decriminalised possession 12 years ago, the use of narcotics has also dropped.

As things currently stand in Ireland, a significant portion of criminality is being funded and employed by the trade in illegal drugs. Whether the criminalisation of certain substances has led to a demand for them specifically or whether there is a genuine human thirst for those chemicals we cannot effectively judge but as has happened in the past, prohibition has led to the creation of a significant market.

At a time of decreased employment opportunity, one option available to many young people from whatever background will be the supply of narcotics to a hungry market. It may be nothing serious – just sorting out a few friends – but the reality is that to engage with their entrepreneurial endeavour, they will be forced to deal with those involved in criminality. I don’t need to spell out the implications and potential pitfalls.

If everybody was as lucky as Deputy Flanagan and didn’t enjoy the cocaine and LSD experience, then perhaps it would not be such a global issue of our time but hats off to him for raising the issue. Many will say that now is not the time for such a debate, that Ireland has far greater problems to deal with but think of the savings in garda overtime and man hours if the drugs trade was taken from the hands of criminals and administered sensibly by the State? Added to this the revenue that would be created and the benefits begin to outweigh the negatives. The very least that is warranted on this issue is a genuine, honest debate. The old approach of prohibition and prosecution has failed. It is time to consider an alternative.

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