Sunday 18 August 2019

Legalising drugs is the best option for society. Criminals are the real losers

The 'war' on drugs was lost before it had ever begun. The futility of prohibition is finally beginning to dawn, writes Dan O'Brien

DEBATE: Real freedom includes the freedom to harm oneself
DEBATE: Real freedom includes the freedom to harm oneself
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Efforts to stop people taking intoxicants will be in vain for as long as human nature is as it is. The downsides of prohibiting substances that people want to consume outweighs the upsides. For softer drugs, such as cannabis, the case for decriminalisation is overwhelming.

These realities are at last having an effect on the debate in many countries, Ireland included. Just last week the Mexican supreme court in a majority decision ruled that a "cannabis club" was not breaking the law by growing and transporting the drug for its members' recreational use. North of the Rio Grande, some US states have decriminalised marijuana in recent years and many more are allowing its use for medicinal purposes.

Perhaps most pertinent for Ireland is the case of Portugal. A decade-and-a-half ago, our European neighbour made a fundamental change to its laws. The possession of 10 days' supply of all drugs was decriminalised and instead made a mere civil offence.

This has saved a great deal of police and justice system resources. That upside has not been offset by downside.

No floodgates have opened, as some people feared. Portugal has not become a nation of drug addicts. Nor has it become a favoured destination for those involved in drugs - from harmless potheads at the bottom of the distribution chain to the criminal kingpins at the very top.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the Portuguese case by the Oireachtas joint committee on justice, defence and equality. It has been looking into how best to deal with the implications of drug use for some time.

After lots of consultation, the law-makers issued their enlightened and thoughtful findings last week. They lean heavily towards liberalisation.

So, too, does the member of the executive with responsibility for intoxicants. Earlier in the week, junior minister Aodhan O Riordain proposed moving towards decriminalisation, along with the introduction of measures to get needle-wielding junkies off the streets and into structured environments where they can get their fixes in a way that is safer for the public and for them.

A grown-up debate about the issue is likely to lead to a consensus emerging that we, in Ireland, should follow Portugal's lead. Perhaps the consensus that emerges might even be more radical. Here are six reasons a radical change of tack on prohibition makes sense.

1) Real freedom includes the freedom to harm oneself. There is a lot of neo-puritanical pontificating about drink, drugs, smoking and assorted over-indulgences. It is right and proper that the best available information is made available to adults about any and every risk. But 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 without its costs. Nor is it ever going to result in a perfect world. Let's just grow up and accept these realities.

2) Prohibition of any substance or service that any sizeable number of people demand is always a boon for criminals. So great is the demand for drugs of various kinds across the world that their sale is a mainstay, if not the mainstay, of organised crime gangs almost everywhere.

A large proportion of murders that take place in Ireland and peer countries are related to the illicit drugs trade. In places such as Mexico, civil-war levels of violence are on-going owing to narco-trafficking.

The illicit drug trade has other spill-over effects which harm societies. From Afghanistan to central America, the politics of entire countries have been corrupted by traffickers. Elsewhere, the amounts of money made by criminals often has a corrupting effect on police forces and other agents of the state. The roles of the Italian mafia and international crime gangs in Spain are obvious examples closer to home.

3) Closely linked is the amount of resources that go into enforcement. Garda time spent on surveilling, investigating, catching and prosecuting those who break the law as it now stands is huge. Freeing up those resources so that they can focus on real wrong- doers makes much more sense than trying to stop people getting high of their own volition.

4) The criminalisation of those caught in possession of small quantities of drugs is grossly disproportionate. A 19-year-old who gets a criminal record for having a spliff will find that his conviction will have an infinitely more detrimental effect on his life than smoking the thing. The career opportunities for anyone with a record, regardless of ability, are hugely curtailed. That reduces lifelong earning potential.

Doing this is not just bad for the individual, it is bad for everyone. People with records can earn less, leading to less wealth being created and less tax being paid. There is a greater chance that someone who can't find employment because of a criminal record will end up dependent on the State.

All of this was recognised in Portugal and was part of the reasoning for changing the law in 2001. To further counteract the risks of people getting locked into long-term drug-dependency, employers are given financial incentives to employ rehabilitated addicts.

5) Bringing the industry out of the underworld will allow regulation. Whatever negative health effects that there might be as a result of any increased and/or more widespread consumption, these will be offset - at least in part - by better quality product. Currently, impure drugs frequently lead to deaths, just as illicitly distilled moonshine sometimes kills those who drink it. The inconsistent purity of product can also often lead to accidental overdoses. If the production side of the industry - growers, refiners, manufacturers and cooks - was decriminalised, it could be treated as the rest of the pharmaceutical industry and regulated tightly.

6) Bringing the industry out of the black economy would also generate considerable taxation opportunities - on the profits of companies involved all the way along the distribution chain, on the wages of those working in the industry and on the consumption of the product in the form of VAT and excise. At a time when the Irish Government, along with many others, is burdened with high levels of debt, the sort of tax windfall that decriminalisation offers is a gift horse.

The hard and sad reality is that drugs (and alcohol) will always ruin lives whether they are legal or prohibited. Those who consume them will sometimes die, they will often suffer ill health, and those near and dear to them will suffer, too, in multiple ways. But basing any policy on an unachievable objective - in this case, the end of drug taking - will inevitably fail. Continuing with prohibition will continue to result in unwanted and unintended consequences. It is past time we had a grown-up debate and move to allowing grown-ups decide for themselves on what they consume.

Sunday Independent

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