Monday 22 July 2019

Ana's death by Russian roulette should make us think again about drugs

Our drug laws are based on denial, and they have failed, says Brendan O'Connor. If we want to protect our kids we should focus on harm-reduction

Ana Hick and her mother Elga
Ana Hick and her mother Elga
Ana Hick
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The war on drugs is being lost, one incarcerated or dead young person at a time. Ana Hick was the latest victim, last Sunday. Ana's 19th birthday was a funeral. She was dead because she did what millions of kids before her did, and what millions more will do. She played Russian roulette with pills she bought from a criminal on the street. And she died because our drugs laws do not protect our children, or take into account human nature.

In all the commentary about Ana's death, perhaps the bravest, and most real thing, was said by Kathryn Thomas, who pointed out that we all took risks at that age, through drinking too much or whatever. Kids do take risks. And as adults, and as an adult society, it should be our job to minimise these risks, rather than pretending it doesn't happen and penalising kids when we catch them.

Drug use can often be associated in the public mind with troubled young people or with trouble-making young people. It sounds like Ana Hick was neither of these. She was not some increasingly introverted kid, withdrawing from friends and family, as drug-users are often portrayed. She was clearly a bright, outgoing kid, full of personality. She was clearly popular, and it is clear too that she had a great relationship with her mother.

She was also obviously ambitious and full of self-belief too, as anyone who hopes to make it in the difficult world of acting needs to be. I'm not suggesting we treat her case any differently because she does not conform to the normal socio-economic or psychological stereotype of a drug-user. I am saying rather that her death should cause us to rethink some of the stereotypes we may have around drugs and the people who use them.

We all took risks at that age. Kids have always experimented and done things their peers were doing, and tried to get a buzz on. Young people like to party. Maybe instead of demonising them for that we should try and do our best to make sure it doesn't kill them.

The risks are possibly a bit different now to when you were young. We don't know yet exactly what happened Ana Hick. There has been some suggestion that she may have taken ecstasy tablets that were adulterated with something else. The fact that six other young people were admitted to the Mater around the time that Ana collapsed on Saturday morning suggests there might be something in the 'bad batch' theory, but the gardai are saying they have no evidence of this.

It wouldn't be anything new if this were true. Pure MDMA is very much the preserve of the cognoscenti these days. Your children who are out buying drugs on the street are tending to get the bottom of the barrel. Every time they take a pill bought on the street they are essentially playing Russian roulette.

During the week, the Mirror cited one person on the pillreport website, who warned, in the aftermath of Ana Hick's death about a type of pill called yellow grenades. This kid ended up in hospital after taking yellow grenades and he says he tested positive for amphetamines, methamphetamine and opium. You have probably heard about methamphetamine. It is said to be the one drug about which the scare stories you hear about drugs are true. Opium is a small step away from heroin. This kid clearly didn't decide to go out at the weekend to take methamphetamine and opiates. But because drugs are illegal, he played that Russian roulette and he ended up taking them, and ended up in hospital. The doctors told him his blood pressure was high enough to cause a stroke or a heart attack.

Look, it goes without saying that none of us wants our kids doing ecstasy at the weekend. But we sure as hell don't want them unwittingly taking hard drugs. But that's what happens because we won't acknowledge the truth and we don't protect them.

You may have heard of PMMA. PMMA is popular as a cheap substitute for ecstasy right now. PMMA is a variant on PMA, which you will remember being responsible for spates of deaths all around the world, including Cork. PMA can cause heart problems and hypothermia, and again, there is a Russian roulette element. PMA is particularly problematic when mixed with actual MDMA. It also takes people longer to 'come up' on PMA, which can lead the taker to believe that the first pill is not working. So then they take another one, which could have more MDMA in it. More Russian roulette.

Ana Hick and kids like her should not have to play this Russian roulette. We should not expose them to the dangers of unwittingly taking pills that are laced with toxic chemicals, heroin and God knows what else.

So what is the answer? There are probably various answers, all of them slightly radical, but far more common-sense than current practice. It's a shame that Aodhan O Riordan's interview on The Saturday Night Show recently was overshadowed by 'Pingate', because what he had to say about drugs was very radical and very sensible. O Riordan is the minister with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy and he seems to essentially believe that we should decriminalise all drugs. He is also clearly a believer in harm-reduction, in the sense that he believes in giving hard-core heroin addicts heroin and needles and a safe place to shoot up under some kind of medical supervision. O Riordan clearly accepts that the war on drugs as it is constituted now is not a war on drugs so much as a war on the millions of young people who use drugs.

Perhaps we need to take the drugs minister's thinking a step further. Perhaps we should think of extending harm-reduction for the thousands of young people who play Russian roulette? Should we keep insisting that our line on this is that they just shouldn't be doing it? Or should we say we accept they do no matter how hard we try to stop them, and that we will do our best to make it safe for them? Should we have somewhere safe and discrete they can go to have pills tested or to get advice on what they are taking? Should clubs be made to have medical assistance onsite?

Or should we in fact cut the dealers out of it altogether? The guy who seems to have sold Ana the drugs on Friday night was apparently out selling again the following night. That says a lot about his concern for his customers. Should we reconsider where people buy their drugs?

These are very hard ideas to swallow, and it may seem to some of you that it represents us giving up in the war on drugs. But the war on drugs is long lost anyway. And think about this: If your kid is going to take a pill this weekend they will take one, legal or not. Would you rather they were playing Russian roulette and buying from some stranger on the street or some dealer they barely know or would you rather they knew what they were taking and there was some form of regulation and support in place to prevent things from going horribly wrong and to help when things do go wrong? None of us wants our kids to take risks. And obviously the ideal is that they would not. But we all took risks at that age, and some of us even when we were old enough to know better.

Don't we owe it to Ana Hick and kids like her to actually face the truth here rather than continuing to live in the deluded belief that we are winning the war on drugs?

Sunday Independent

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