Good time Charlie's got the blues

Last year’s bumper harvest of Afghan opium is about to hit our shores. Meanwhile, cocaine’s popularity in Ireland rises to unprecedented levels.

Those who made it to the annual exhibition of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin’s Ely Place might have noticed a striking piece of art by Brian Palm called Incident At Sea. It was a diorama, that is, a representation of a scene in three dimensions. In this case, it showed a ship laden with cargo running aground. It was inspired by events last January when the container ship MSC Napoli aground in East Devon’s Lyme Bay.

You remember it I’m sure. Containers crashed into the sea and broke, spilling their contents onto the shore. People came from far and wide to scavenge and salvage. It was a modern-day Whiskey Galore. Heads were shaken and scratched at how quickly the inner pirate was released.

“Found” goods included BMW motorcycles, empty wine casks, perfumes and the contents of private shipping crates. At first the police stood back but then they said the activities of the scavengers were “despicable”, closed the beach, and announced that they would use old laws to force people to return the goods.

I was reminded of all this when I heard that packages of cocaine were washing up on the West Cork coastline and that dozens of people had turned up to, shall we say, rummage among the rocks and dunes. No doubt they were searching for wrack, as the olds folks would have said, and not for profit. I’m sure.

There’s something that is both darkly and richly amusing about the image. West Cork has a high concentration of New Age crusties right alongside the poets and painters and jollies who once christened it the new Tuscany. Not everyone would happily hand over a bale of Charlie to the Bill.

The total value of the haul is unclear, but is substantial, probably between €200m and €300m. As Al Pacino’s Scarface put it in not dissimilar circumstances, “Dat’s a lotta fockin money.”

We Irish have a very ambivalent relationship with Charlie. Long the drug of choice amongst performers, artists and designers, it has gone cross-market in recent years. Coke has become very cheap and very accessible and very widely used. It’s as ubiquitous as hash or alcopops and as widely accepted. It has put the crack into craic, right across the board.

In some communities and families its impact is worse than heroin or alcohol. It is certainly the fuel that fires our current gang culture and its murderous internecine feuding. It’s a key component in a wide range of violent incidents, repetitive beating, kicking or stabbing being a hallmark.

In parallel it seems that last year’s bumper harvest of opium in Afghanistan will be hitting our streets quite soon. Like cocaine, it will be cheap and very very pure. There will certainly be deaths by overdoses amongst Irish users unused to such quality. It will be on special offer at an outlet near you.

The opium is grown under the protection of the Taliban in Kandahar province. Now there’s an irony. Before the Americans and British invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban had brought in a poppy ban. But after the invasion the Taliban encouraged the cultivation of the poppies to pay for its war effort. How ironic is that?!

Two key questions arise from all this.

Firstly, what causes us more grief here in the west, the drugs trade or terrorists? When you add everything together, the crime, the murders, the pressures on the health services, the family breakdowns, the whole kit and caboodle, I’d say it’s the drugs trade. And the irony is that the war on terror has increased the availability of heroin, big time.

Secondly, isn’t the War on Drugs an abject failure? Billions of dollars have been expended worldwide on disrupting the supply lines. The Americans even resorted to napalming coca fields in Colombia and paying the farmers to grow coffee.

Yet, the Garda Síochána estimate that they, and all other police forces, only intercept some 10% of the illegal drugs trade. Bertie Ahern candidly told the Dáil that “there was no intelligence involved” in the West Cork find, it was all a chance outcome of bad weather! Look at the quantities!! If it were a business in the private sector, the War on Drugs would be wound up long ago. Seriously! If a business only succeeded 10% of the time its shareholders would have the executives’ asses for breakfast!

This isn’t to point a finger at the customs and excise and police personnel. They do what they can in the circumstances. But if policies don’t work over a generation, maybe it’s time to think of another way to deal with the problem.

On the demand side, maybe it’s time to be more honest, to accept that a lot of people actually want to take drugs. And that’s apart altogether from the significant numbers who use and abuse prescription drugs.

So how do you control that? They say that in a modern city you’re never more than five metres from a rat. Likewise, you’re never more than 100 metres from a dealer. When one dealer goes down there’s five ready to take over. So, how do you change from a situation where anyone buying recreational drugs is complicit in an illegal industry, is contributing to the profits of gangsters and murderers?

Well, either you keep on getting your ten per cent or you regulate, as we do with alcohol, one or the other.

On the supply side, when you remember how much effort is put into disrupting supply, and yet we now know that we’re flooded with coke and heroin, maybe the emphasis should shift to gaining control of the supply, that is to say buying it and letting it be sold through a regulated system, again like alcohol.

Regulating the drugs market isn’t a soft option, it isn’t a surrender to thugs and monsters. It's how you take them out of the game. When Prohibition ended in America it took the bootleggers out of the equation.

Some gangsters would disappear. Others would move to other crime areas about which there is less ambiguity in public attitude and public behaviour. All could be pursued, both for crimes and for taxes owed.

Controlling the sale and consumption of drugs, regulating their strength and purity and quality and then taxing them and using the tax take to help people know about the drugs they take – like that coke isn’t just a fun thing, in the wrong circumstances it can be a very dangerous drug indeed – represents as viable an option as accepting that you’re only going to nail 10%.

People are very ambivalent on drugs. They hate the crime and drug culture, they loathe the gangs, they fear the murdering and viciousness and anti-social behaviour. They want an end to all that.

But an awful lot of people also take illegal drugs. An awful lot of people contribute to the coffers of the drug barons.

Collectively, we’re trying to have it both ways and at the end of the day you can’t do that. The drugs issue is just too big for us to keep looking the other way, to keep thinking at enforcement level that if we get 10% of the illegal trade that this is somehow satisfactory and at individual level that one’s own little stash doesn’t count.

International delusions regarding the war on drugs are reaching their sell-by date. Doing it better is going to require another way. It’s not one that we can start ourselves. But it’s one where we can start the ball rolling.

 

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