independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Colette Brown: Why should teenagers become criminals for taking the odd spliff?

If Obama had been arrested and charged with drug possession all of those years ago he would never have become president
If Obama had been arrested and charged with drug possession all of those years ago he would never have become president

These days it's increasingly popular for politicians to admit to smoking cannabis in their youth, so why are we still criminalising young people for the same behaviour?

Last month, Barack Obama caused a stir when he said: "I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked ... I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

Meanwhile, in this country, even conservative types like Leo Varadkar and Brian Cowen have admitted to smoking the odd spliff when they were in college. However, despite their own dalliances with drugs in the past, politicians demonstrate breathtaking hypocrisy in insisting on the continuation of a failed policy – the blanket criminalisation of cannabis use.

While they emerged unscathed from their drug experimentation, they are happy for thousands of young people to have their lives permanently blighted by a drug conviction.

Their intransigence makes little sense when one considers that our current myopic drug policy is rooted more on anecdotal scaremongering than any verifiable scientific data.

Obama may think that cannabis and alcohol are equally harmful but it can be argued that alcohol is a far more dangerous drug.

According to Alcohol Action Ireland, 88 deaths in this country every month are directly attributable to alcohol; there are 1,200 cases of cancer each year from alcohol; one in four deaths of young men aged between 15 and 29 is due to alcohol and one in three road fatalities is alcohol related.

Meanwhile, alcohol has been identified as a contributory factor in 97pc of public order offences and it has been estimated that alcohol-related health and crime costs stand at a staggering €3.7bn per annum.

In comparison, cannabis use has sometimes been noted in coroners' reports but it has never been listed as a cause of death.

Some have attempted to draw a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia but a Harvard study published last year found that genetics, and not marijuana, was to blame.

"The results of the current study suggest that having an increased familial morbid risk for schizophrenia may be the underlying basis for schizophrenia in cannabis users and not cannabis use by itself," it concluded.

OTHER comprehensive studies have found no link between cannabis use and lung cancer or decreased lung function much to the surprise of the researchers involved.

There is also little evidence to substantiate reports that the potency of cannabis herb in this country has increased dramatically in recent years.

That is not to say that there is no risk from smoking cannabis but rather that the risks are equivalent, and in some cases even less, than the risks from legal drugs like nicotine and alcohol. Given all of the available evidence, it is ludicrous that cannabis is treated by the criminal justice system as being just as dangerous as heroin and crack cocaine.

If society has deemed that cannabis should be illegal we should be able to draft laws that reflect its lower risk level. Of course, that would involve the framing of drug laws that were based on science, not hysteria.

If Obama had been arrested and charged with drug possession all of those years ago he would never have become president. According to the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol, one in four Irish people aged between 15 and 64 have tried cannabis.

How many of them have been denied the right to attain their full potential because they had the misfortune to be caught?

Labour TD Michael McNamara recently called for possession of cannabis to be added to the adult caution scheme, so gardai could opt not to prosecute first-time offenders.

Rather than wasting state resources prosecuting thousands of people every year, funding could instead be funnelled into drug treatment programmes. This was considered when the scheme was set up in 2006 but was inexplicably abandoned following consultations between the DPP and Gardai. There is no reason this decision cannot be revisited.

Once this is done, perhaps we can then begin to have a broader debate about the utility of continuing to pursue prohibitionist drug policies that have been an unmitigated disaster – resulting in availability increasing, prices falling, criminal gangs proliferating and prison populations multiplying.

Irish Independent

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