- 25 Feb 16
Bringing an end to the so called War On Drugs would save the country hundreds of millions, bankrupt criminal gangs and prevent the alienation and imprisonment of a vast number of Irish citizens. So find out where your candidates stand on the issue – and vote for those who are committed to supporting change.
“The War on Drugs and the War on Homelessness are on a collision course that no-one in the media or in public life are willing to acknowledge. Ostensibly aimed at decreasing the use of illegal drugs, the War on Drugs succeeds only in increasing homelessness.” – Thomas Szasz.
Our smooth, svelte and glorious leader Enda Kenny was out canvassing the streets of Cork city on Friday, February 12, shaking hands, scaring babies, making promises, ignoring protestors and turning the first sod on some brand new building development (because we’re back, babies!!).
It’s a shame our electioneering Taoiseach didn’t have time to pop into the university, where this Hot Press writer, independent drug researcher Tim Bingham and Graham de Barra of Help Not Harm (a campaign supporting a shift of drug policy from criminal justice to public health) were publicly discussing the pros and cons of the decriminalisation of drugs, at the UCC Journalism Society’s eighth annual conference.
Truth be told, throughout the three-hour session, neither ourselves nor the conference attendees could come up with too many cons. That the longstanding prohibitionist policy has been a complete and utter failure was highlighted by the front page of that day’s Irish Independent, which featured a large photograph of the late Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, gunned down by a member of a Dublin drug gang in 1996.
Joel Schumacher directed the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced biopic Veronica Guerin in 2003, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role. At the end of that movie, galvanised by Guerin’s murder, the Irish government sets up the Criminal Assets Bureau, the drug cartels disappear overnight, and peace and calm descends all over Ireland. Without anybody smoking so much as a spliff.
Sadly, while the CAB has certainly been effective in certain respects, there has been no such Hollywood ending in real life. In many ways, things have significantly worsened in the 20 years since Guerin’s death. Love/Hate was a drama, but it could almost be seen as a documentary. Most gangland activity is fully funded and fuelled by illegal drugs.
They might be operating on a smaller scale than the Mexicans or Colombians, but Ireland’s drug cartels can be just as deadly. Guerin’s image was used by the Indo to highlight the fact that serious death threats had just been made against two of their journalists, reporting on the latest spate of gang warfare that has seen helicopters in the skies and heavily armed Gardai patrolling the mean streets of Dublin.
It’s an utterly unacceptable state of affairs in 2016.
During my conference address, I recalled how myself and UCC law lecturer Tim Murphy had formed the Cannabis Legalisation Party in 1997 and stood in the Irish general election (Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan also ran in that election, although we weren’t associated). Our arguments for legalisation then were exactly the same as the ones that I was presenting from the podium almost 20 years later.
Essentially, by legalising and regulating drugs, you largely eliminate the criminal market place; you starve drug gangs and cartels of cash; you massively reduce drug-related crime; and you also make the drugs far safer to consume. Tim Bingham had much to say about the recent death of Cork teenager Alex Ryan, who expired after snorting a synthetic powder – initially reported to be 2CP, but later confirmed to be a substance called 250-NBOMe (N-Bomb) – at a house party. That made the very misfortunate Alex yet another victim of drug prohibition. Would Ryan and his friends have taken N-Bomb if they could have accessed safe, regulated and legal MDMA?
Our current crop of politicians are totally obsessed with the economy, so perhaps the most compelling argument for a change of drug policy is the inarguable fact that prohibition costs Irish taxpayers a fortune – in justice, policing, prisons, health and crime. By treating a public health issue as a criminal justice one, the government are pouring tax money into fighting a long-lost battle. Money that should be spent on health, education and treatment is instead often being wasted on prosecuting otherwise law-abiding citizens.
In his address, Graham de Barra recalled an unfortunate fellow student at UCC who had been busted and prosecuted for possession of €2 worth of cannabis (essentially the residual resin in a small plastic deal bag). The state prosecuted him, and he was taken before the courts and given a fine… and a criminal record. That criminal record has seriously restricted his career and travel opportunities.
Given that a reported 82% of Irish students have experimented with illegal drugs, this hardly seems fair or just (especially given that so many politicians cheerfully admit to youthful drug experimentation in their Hot Press interviews). And how much did it cost the Irish State to prosecute one of its own citizens?
The reality is that most illegal drug use is recreational. The root causes of problematic drug use are poverty and despair. Prohibition is a useful smokescreen, when it comes to avoiding the real social and economic factors that lead people to develop serious problems. We need to address those underlying causes if we’re to reduce the numbers of problem users. Those problems will cost a lot of money to fix. In Colorado and Washington, they’re using the vast tax revenues from marijuana sales to build schools and hospitals.
Thankfully, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, most especially with regard to cannabis. A total of four American states have now fully legalised marijuana, and the results have been so positive that many more seem set to follow. Uruguay became the first county in the world to fully legalise marijuana in May 2014, and that country’s criminal cartels have been seriously weakened as a result. Following the recent election of Justin Trudeau, Canada will shortly become the first industrialised nation to fully legalise marijuana.
In a brave, bold and intelligent move, Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. The country now has just three overdose deaths per million citizens, compared to the EU average of 17.3.
Despite the positive Portuguese experience, some “experts” still argue that drug legalisation would be a dangerous experiment. The reality is that the current prohibitionist policy is the experiment – and it has been an unequivocal failure. The hardline, and often barbaric, criminal justice approach to drug use has not diminished their presence in our society (or even in our prisons).
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The worldwide War against Drugs has undeniably been well and truly lost – at truly astronomical cost (estimated to be well over a trillion dollars in the United States alone), with literally millions of lives lost or ruined. To continue spinelessly applying the failed policy of prohibition is to pour petrol on an inferno: a criminally insane approach.
Worldwide, political leaders are beginning to wake up to this. I expect to see marijuana, at the very least, completely legalised in Europe and the US within the next decade. Future generations will look back on its prohibition in much the same way as we look back bemusedly at alcohol prohibition. What the fuck were they thinking (although there are idiots in the anti-alcohol lobby here who seem to pine for the good old days when drink was outlawed)?
Our current minister with responsibility for drug strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, is extremely well-versed in all of the arguments, and he appears convinced. He has been the most progressive-minded politician to ever tackle this burning issue. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no guarantee that he’ll still be in that office after this general election.
Most politicians fear being perceived as being “soft on drugs.” If a less enlightened individual takes over Ó Ríordáin’s brief, which seems likely to happen, it could well be a case of two steps forward and five steps back for Irish drug policy. So remember, give whatever candidates turn up on your doorstep a grilling about their policy on drugs. And remember, Ó Ríordáin and Labour have led from the front on this hugely important issue.