Trust no one who says there are easy answers to drugs
It's an insult to real victims to claim that there is no alternative to a life of violent crime
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
More nonsense is talked about drugs than almost any other subject. Last week, following the murder of Gareth Hutch in Dublin, was no different.
Flood the area with armed gardai to take out the killers, demanded the bar-stool bores.
Few would surely object if that happened. The problem is that the few who would object have more influence than the silent majority who wouldn't.
That's why the Garda Siochana is tangled in rules. The average sergeant can now barely say boo to a drug-dealing goose without being drowned in paperwork, if not suspended. It's not possible to have a serious crackdown on criminals under these conditions, and gardai aren't paid enough to ask them to shoulder the attendant risks.
In that case, comes the next easy answer, just give the guards the resources to spend on intelligence gathering instead. Bring down the gangs with information, not brute force. Again, few would complain at that. The police need data, and that costs money.
It still wouldn't stop people dying. Even in the North, with thousands of armed police and soldiers on the streets, and surveillance on an industrial scale, murder was commonplace. The reason being that it's not hard to take a life. We mythologise murder into some hugely symbolic act of transgression. Morally speaking, it is. In practical terms, it couldn't be more straightforward, as last week's notorious CCTV footage illustrated.
The gardai can't be everywhere at once, and there's no shortage of people willing to kill another human being for a few hundred euros.
Ivan Yates even suggested bringing in "temporary" internment to tackle the problem, perhaps forgetting that the five years of internment in Northern Ireland coincided with five of the six bloodiest years of the Troubles.
Legally, it would also be a nightmare. Some drug dealer would be up before the courts every day as his barrister insisted that the poor dear's human rights were being violated because he missed his mammy and couldn't pick up Sky Sports on the TV in his cell. Most of the worst offenders would slip through the net anyway, as they did in Ulster.
The vast majority of criminal and terrorist organisations alike rely on small fry who are easily replaceable if caught or killed. Locking them up is no solution to a gangland war, however temporary. The kingpins can always find little people to do their dirty work.
This is when the next quick fix - that drugs should be legalised - invariably presents itself. That was Eoin O Murchu's preferred solution on radio last week when he declared that the "only way to deal with" the criminality that stems from the drugs trade was to "destroy the market", adding: "You do that by the State itself running the distribution of drugs for those people who are unfortunate enough to need them."
Taking away the dealers' source of income is a superficially attractive answer, until you start to consider the logistics of how it would work. Where, for starters, would the State get Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine? From whom would it buy them?
Internationally, criminals are the only people who have drugs in sufficient quantities. If we traded with them, we'd effectively be a rogue state in cahoots with organisations steeped in forced prostitution, people trafficking, illegal weapons, and murder, only now they'd be funded by public rather than private money. Do we really want the State to become a glorified middle man for drugs cartels?
Or are those who advocate the legalisation of drugs suggesting that we should instead turn over large parts of rural Ireland to the production of home-grown drugs and/or synthetic substitutes?
Even if we did decide that we were okay with that, the likelihood would still be that this would lead to an increase, not a reduction, in the number of users. Since when did making a product cheaper and easier to get reduce demand?
What's more, these substances would have to be distributed by the State under strictly controlled conditions, similar to prescription drugs or heroin substitutes such as methadone; and that's open to abuse too. You don't get as much Valium as you want; you only get as many pills as the doctor says you can have. Presumably it would be the same if illegal drugs were legalised. You'd only be allowed a certain amount. What then if users wanted more?
Because they would. As comedian Russell Brand, himself a former addict, once pointed out, drugs are very "moreish".
What would stop addicts enjoying their official allocation of drugs, thank you very much, then heading straight to the Kinahans to buy some more? Or even selling their own stash to the Kinahans in return for something more exciting? This is where the market would reassert itself and you're back to square one.
Criminals are many things, but stupid is not one of them. If their continued power and wealth depended on supplying something that was not readily available elsewhere, then they'd find that something and sell it. Prescription drugs are a legalised product too, but you can still buy them from dealers on the street, and new homemade varieties of dangerous narcotic delight are being created all the time. Should the State dole out MDMA and ketamine too? If not, someone always will.
Disappointing as it may be to the socialists, markets are not that easily suppressed.
A different solution suggested by Gary Gannon, Social Democrat councillor for Dublin's north inner city, is to tackle the reasons why people take drugs so that they no longer want or need to.
The reason they do so, he argued, is because they act as "painkillers" that numb the reality of miserable lives.
"When people are experiencing the levels of poverty and deprivation that they are, they look for other ways out."
His analysis of why people who live in deprived areas use drugs may well be correct, but they're not the only people who use drugs. Middle-class professionals take recreational drugs too. They're certainly less likely to use heroin, but there's no evidence that eliminating poverty would kill off the sale of other drugs.
Everyone has some feelings that they want to block out or numb, and the desire to get out of one's head evidently supersedes any qualms about the utter impossibility of buying drugs ethically. Middle-class people who won't drink a cup of coffee unless it's Fair Trade, or eat an egg without an assurance that the chicken had a fulfilling life, have no compunction about lining the pockets of violent criminals. It's just another of those illogicalities which the debate on drugs invariably spawns.
By far the biggest myth about drugs, however, is the one which says that the problem is really caused by economic deprivation. One community worker on Morning Ireland actually said that crime has developed because of "decades of poverty and inequality" which meant "there has been no alternative in terms of finding a decent way of life for their families."
There Is No Alternative was the great war cry of Margaret Thatcher, and has since been adopted by those who, in the wake of the financial crash, argued that austerity was the only way forward. The Left strongly insists that this analysis is wrong, and that there's always another way. When it comes to this issue, suddenly There Is No Alternative becomes their mantra too. To quote their own rebuttal: there's always an alternative.
The irrefutable proof of which is that most people live by it. They're not drug dealers. They don't kill their neighbours for spare change. They live quietly, doing their best for their children in difficult circumstances, and it's insulting to them to imply, however well-meaningly, that those who refuse to behave with the same decency are in any way victims of society. Criminals are not the victims here. Their victims are the victims.
This is just an echo of the poisonous Troubles lie that terrorists had no choice but to commit violence. They had the same choices as everyone else. They just made bad ones.
Dublin's inner city is not some hellhole in which people are forced to claw one another like rats in a sack to survive. Ireland is far from perfect but it's still a society in which education is there for those who want to make use of it, with a social welfare safety net for the most vulnerable.
There is nothing in Irish life that justifies becoming a drug dealer or a murderer.
That's not to say nothing should be done to deal with inequality or poor housing and health. There should be long-term strategies to tackle poverty in the inner city, and in rural Ireland too - just because people in the country don't use their poverty as an excuse to deal drugs to the same extent doesn't mean their needs should be ignored - and there should be more guidance for young people whose own parents are inadequate to the task of keeping them out of crime.
Greater investment in intelligence-gathering is also necessary, as is a long overdue debate on whether the balance has shifted too far away from letting the State unsheath an iron fist when needed.
But we're fooling ourselves if we think there are any easy solutions. The smallest incremental progress needs a coordinated approach combining a muliplicity of strategies. That takes patience and time.
The deeper worry is whether the will is there to see through that huge task.
The Taoiseach made some of the right noises about resources last week, but his most notable comment came when, speaking of the determination of the Kinahans to wipe out the Hutches, he declared: "I don't think I can stop that."
He later clarified that he was speaking as a private individual, and that this in no way reflected defeatism in the Government, but it wasn't exactly a promising start, was it?
Analysing the success of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both shifty characters in their own right, in their races to be presidential candidates, conservative commentator Byron York recently drew the following conclusion: "Voters don't want honest. They want strong." All the more so when they're afraid. It's time for strong.