Dan O'Brien: We must take the emotion out of the debate over legalising drugs
Alcohol and drugs are consumed and enjoyed by many, if not most, adults. The former is more widely used because it is legal.
This week the Green Party proposed bringing the laws on the two types of intoxicants more closely into line by decriminalising cannabis.
The proposal is not without possible downsides. Lifting sanctions on cannabis possession could lead to it being used more widely. As medical research shows that regular use of the drug can cause mental health problems for some, this is a clear negative.
But making decisions on such matters requires an assessment of the pros as well as the cons. Nobody, for instance, suggests vehicles should be banned, despite well over a million deaths on the world’s roads each year, because it would have a catastrophic impact, including for the distribution of food and medicines.
Among the best reasons to liberalise drugs laws is to starve criminals and crime gangs of their main source of income. In 1933 the US abandoned prohibition (of alcohol) because of the boon it proved to be for organised crime, a consequence that was not foreseen when the US constitution was amended in 1920 to allow the ban.
Ireland continues to experience serious gang violence, as criminals fight over the huge revenues generated by the business. People who are entirely uninvolved suffer and die. This is a big cost of prohibition.
A second, and closely related reason for changing the framework around narcotics, is law enforcement. Gardaí are put in peril on a daily basis and a huge amount of money is spent containing feuds, preventing distribution, and prosecuting and imprisoning those who have broken drugs laws. This money could be saved by liberalisation.
A third argument in favour of decriminalisation and outright legalisation is health and safety.
Products that are peddled by criminals and subject to no regulation are usually of low quality.
They are often laced with toxic substances. There has been tragedy after tragedy caused by tainted drugs – and victims are not only hardcore addicts who may never have got clean, but also of dabbling kids who would be living normal lives today if the stuff they had taken had been produced in the same labs that make the medicines we buy in chemists.
A fourth reason in favour of the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of narcotics is the effect a criminal record can have.
The implications of a drugs conviction can be life-changing, particularly for young people. Some will argue that knowingly breaking the law should come with sanction.
There is some validity to this argument. But penalties should be proportionate.
The lifetime career prospects of an 18-year-old convicted of possession can be massively changed as a result of a criminal record. That is not only bad for the individuals concerned, it is bad for society. People with records earn less, leading to less wealth being created and less tax being paid.
There is also a greater chance that someone who can’t find employment because of a criminal record will end up depending on the State rather than contributing to it.
Yet another reason to bring drugs out of the black economy is the public finances. Treating them as alcohol is treated would allow tax to be levied on them. Having drug users contribute to the funding of public services, including the health services that some of them already need as a result of their habit, makes sense.
Last but not least is the liberty argument. Free people in a free society should ultimately be able to decide for themselves whether they want to take risks with their own health. Liberty is not enjoyed without cost and real freedom includes the freedom to harm oneself.
What of the downsides of liberalising drugs laws?
One of the strongest arguments against has always been the risk that it would turn vanguard countries into drugs hubs. For Ireland, becoming a European centre for narco traffickers is not an outcome anyone wants.
But as the winds of change blow across Europe and the US, this argument is looking weaker. Many American states have decriminalised and/or legalised marijuana without becoming magnets for junkies and mobsters. Closer to home, Portugal’s experiment in decriminalisation is being watched closely across the continent. It has not made the Iberian country a drugs haven. Nor has it led to a surge in cannabis use.
With change afoot, what are the prospects of a calm, reasoned debate on drugs?
Not good, if public debate on alcohol is anything to go by. The vocal extremists in the anti-alcohol lobby seem to believe that the downsides of excessive drinking can be ended if only the political will existed. They fail to acknowledge that intoxicating substances inevitably lead to harm whether they are legal or not. As with so many lobby groups, they talk of a growing “crisis” despite the fact that annual alcohol consumption per person has been falling for a decade-and-a-half.
For the hard-line illiberals in the anti-alcohol movement, no amount of tax on drink is enough and there is no downside from having the highest taxes on alcohol in Europe.
There may be a case for (even) higher taxes on alcohol as a means of reducing consumption, but such is the zeal of the lobby that it hasn’t focused on increasing excise duties, which would flow into the State’s coffers and could be used to pay for treatment of excessive users.
Instead, it has successfully pushed minimum-pricing legislation, which causes higher profits for sellers of alcohol and a lower tax take.
Weighing up the pros and cons of policy measures in any area should be the main factor in how laws are framed.
With attitudes to drugs laws changing across the western world, the issue will likely rise up the Irish legislative agenda. The debate on drugs should be guided by reason, not neo-puritanical emotion.