Thursday 17 October 2019

Legalising drug use: a tough pill to swallow

Football star Philly McMahon believes we should decriminalise drug use. With his TV documentary on the way, he explains his reasoning to John Meagher

Football to the rescue: McMahon is a fitness coach and motivational speaker at Mountjoy Prison. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Football to the rescue: McMahon is a fitness coach and motivational speaker at Mountjoy Prison. Picture by Frank Mc Grath
Philly in action for Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is a chilly midweek evening in October and Philly McMahon arrives early at Ballymun Kickhams, the GAA club he has served with distinction for the best part of 20 years. The Dublin Gaelic footballer - a six-time All-Ireland winner who will be among the galaxy of stars hunting for an unprecedented five-in-a-row in 2019 - may have one part of his mind on tonight's training session, one of the last of a long season, but another part is thinking about a subject that's long occupied him: drug abuse.

And he wants to get his thoughts off his chest.

McMahon is one of the country's most vocal campaigners to legalise drug use in order to deal with a crisis that is showing no signs of going away more than 40 years after becoming a feature of Irish life. He lost his older brother, John, to drugs in 2012 and since then he has been a tireless advocate for a different approach to dealing with addicts.

Philly in action for Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran
Philly in action for Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran

His polemical documentary, The Hardest Hit, airs on RTÉ One tomorrow and argues that if Ireland is to ever get a grip on drug addiction, it needs to follow in the footsteps of Portugal, which decriminalised drugs for personal use in 2001, and has had some extraordinary results. It's a programme that is certain to divide opinion, but McMahon is convinced that legislation is the only way forward.

"I understand why people would fear decriminalisation," he says, "and that comes from not being educated. People might think that decriminalisation means opening the floodgates, but it doesn't. It takes more control and management over the issue. You change the policy from a criminal justice issue to a healthcare issue. You're basically saying that these people have a mental health issue that needs to be looked at. It's decriminalising the human being."

McMahon believes the current policy of criminalising addicts neither benefits them, or society. "We have the fourth highest overdose rate in Europe per capita. I just don't understand why we don't see enough change. We've got to realise that we do not have control over drug addiction - we're allowing greedy people, the drug dealers, to sell drugs and destroy a lot of lives."

The Hardest Hit documents the horrors that drugs visited upon McMahon's family. John started on heroin at just 14 - shooting up in a lift in one of Ballymun's former towers - and he was sucked into a vortex that he struggled to get out of. Philly - seven years younger - was so ashamed of his brother's addiction that he changed his surname from Caffrey, his mother's name, to McMahon, his father's.

It was only after John died from an overdose in London six years ago and McMahon started to fully understand the vice-like grip that drugs can have, that he understood how little progress had been made in fighting drug abuse. "The political will isn't there," he says, wearily. "There are no votes in drug addicts, and it's communities like the one that I grew up on that are particularly vulnerable."

Much has been written about Ballymun's regeneration and McMahon says he is proud of the progress made. But he insists that at any one time "20 or 30" pushers are operating in the area at present and they are determined to recruit a new generation of addicts.

He could have been one, too. "John made the mistakes for me," he says. "If he wasn't there, I could easily have gone down the wrong road." And he sees old friends who took the wrong fork in the road every single week in the course of work at Mountjoy Prison, where he fulfils two roles: motivational speaker to former addicts keen to stay clean and fitness coach for low-risk prisoners.

"It's strange to go in there for the first time and see five or six of my old pals. The vast majority of people who end up in jail have had problems with drugs - there's no getting away from it."

Last year, 340 people died from an overdose in this country. Its an overdose rate - which at 70 per million people - is far higher than the European norm of 17 per million. "It's a huge figure," he says. "Compare that to Portugal, where there were just 14 deaths last year. It's somewhere we can learn so much from - and we need to do it quickly, because there's little sign that the rate of deaths is going down in this country."

In his documentary, McMahon visits Portugal to learn how the country got to grips with its own drug-addiction crisis. His report is compelling. Decriminalising drugs for personal use was outlawed in 2001. Anyone caught with a small supply of drugs is set to what's known as a 'Dissuasion Commission' - essentially an informal meeting with government-appointed drugs specialists - and they are invited to either get help to stop their addiction, or at the very least, given the option to continue using them in a safer way, such as at an injection centre.

If police come across a drugs transaction on the street, the dealer is sent to the courts system and the user to the dissuasion commission. "It's an acknowledgement that it's a mental health problem," McMahon says, "and if that sort of policy was in place in this country, not only would the numbers dying from overdose go way down, but time and resources could be spent on going after the criminals who supply."

It's a sentiment shared by Marcus Keane, head of policy with the Dublin-based Ana Liffey Drug Project. "The bottom line is this: criminalising people for possession of drugs for personal use isn't helpful," he argues. "It can have profound negative effects on people's lives, but doesn't provide any corresponding benefit for the individual or society in general. It needs to stop. We should instead respond to drug use with a focus on why the person is using the drug - with pragmatism, with empathy and with a health focus that will help, not hinder, the individual in their life."

Others, like Pat Leahy, Assistant Commissioner in the gardaí for the Dublin Metropolitan area, partly agree. In The Hardest Hit, he tells McMahon that "prosecuting addicts is of no benefit to them - or the Guards. Police intervention has never cured drug addiction. That's the bottom line. Only treatment can do that".

But Leahy falls short of endorsing the Portuguese model for Ireland. "I've thought about it [decriminalisation] for a long time and I haven't come down one side or the other."

But this evening, in the car park at Ballymun Kickhams, McMahon believes there's no more time for dithering. "Every year that goes by without this being tackled means 300-odd deaths. Why aren't people on the street protesting? Why are people not angered and outraged?"

Cycle of crime

They are rhetorical questions. He says that as most fatalities from drug abuse are those from disadvantaged areas, such as the one he grew up in, the wider populace simply doesn't care. But he cautions against such apathy.

"Drug addiction is in every social class but the only difference is that people in lower to middle classes don't have the resources to deal with it. If you go to Mountjoy, it's people in lower-class communities - they don't have the money to go into rehabilitation, so they go into a cycle of crime.

"But you're kidding yourself if you think the professional classes aren't impacted, too. They are, believe me. You've lawyers, judges, police officers, teachers, politicians, you-name-it. There are people taking drugs in all these professions - and yet we are incriminating people from the lower classes."

He hopes The Hardest Hit will provoke a national debate about decriminalisation, but accepts that some will find the message unpalatable. "If people say, 'Philly, I watched your documentary but I don't believe it'. I'd say to them, 'Well show me an alternative' - I don't care what the alternative is, as long as it has a positive impact on drug addicts.

"Everybody should be coming together to tackle this - the stakeholders in this area are all too dispersed, whether its politics, volunteers, activists… they should come together to say, 'What do we need to do?' What we have at the moment is not working - and that would be clear to anyone who bothers to look."

Gaelic football rescued McMahon from the fate suffered by his brother and many of his friends, and now he has to go to prepare for today's league match against St Jude's. But he is hopeful that such deeply personal deaths won't be in vain.

"Over the last few years, we've shown that we, as Irish people, are open to real change thanks to the same-sex referendum and Repeal the 8th. They were needed - and whether you agree with the results or not, nobody would dispute that the questions needed to be asked.

"And it's the same with drug abuse. Don't fool yourself into thinking that they won't affect you or the people close to you. Drugs are very popular socially again, and it could be your kids or your grandkids that get hooked. And remember this: there are other, different drugs to come."

'Philly McMahon: The Hardest Hit' is on RTÉ One at 9.30pm tomorrow.

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