Let's decriminalise drugs and reap the benefits all round
Not for the first time, Peter McVerry has called it. The war on drugs is over, he says. They're available on every street corner. He even prefers the option of legalising drugs, not merely decriminalising them, opting for the methadone distribution model which has in effect decimated the criminal sales of methadone as well, ensuring the quality of the product available.
So is there merit in what he is proposing?
I must have grown up with the wrong kind of people, because I didn't see drugs as a young person, and to this day I wouldn't have a clue about how to go about "scoring" hard drugs, let alone administering them.
However, that is not to say that I am unaware of their general availability and the havoc they wreak on people's lives.
Ireland has one of the highest user rates of heroin in Europe (seven in every thousand*) and the death rates from poisoning and suicide are also unacceptably high (third-highest in Europe*) We also have one of the poorest track records in assisting people with addictions, still playing to the criminal aspect rather than the medical.
And this is what puzzles me. How have we decided what is a legal drug and what is an illegal drug?
Consider nicotine and alcohol, two of the most potent drugs on the planet yet freely available and earning governments a fortune in taxes. In a brave new world no sane person could find one solitary argument for the introduction of cigarettes as a product. And while alcohol may have many social aspects, try telling that to the alcoholic or their family.
However, in both cases, where the effects of the drugs cause negative impacts, the addict is not criminalised for the use alone. He is given medical solutions, not locked up for needing to use the drug. And this is the distinction - take away the illegality of drugs and see what happens.
Firstly, by decriminalising drugs (and yes, even the hard ones) you remove the gangs. We may rant and rave at unfair taxes imposed by the Government and may call them all sorts of names, but they are not likely to chop off a finger if you can't pay your bills. I'd rather get my drugs off the Government than off my local gang.
It also has the impact of minimising criminal sprees where addicts rob to pay for their habit. If addicts are treated as people with a medical problem - no more than a lung cancer patient - then they will not need to break into houses to pay for their drugs. Can you imagine the uproar if we called smokers criminals and forced them on to the black market to maintain their habit?
Treating drugs as a medical issue also takes a large number of synthetic drugs out of the marketplace - why pay for poor copies when you can have the real thing? The benefit is to limit the spawning of unstable and often toxic (in an immediate sense) new drugs as well as to ensure the old reliables pass quality control.
Then there are the uptake benefits. The recent bill to decriminalise cannabis was laughed out of the Dáil, but in countries where it is legal, everyone does not go to pot - literally. In fact, after any initial hiccups, usage goes down.
Finally, the health of people with drug issues improves. The chances of stabilising their lives increases dramatically, while deaths fall and lives are saved.
So what is all this based on? Portugal went the whole hog and decriminalised drugs. There was an outcry at the time, but the country is doing well. Criminal gangs are displaced, and money once spent on policing the bad guys (including the addicts) is now spent on helping them.
When caught in possession of drugs for personal use, people are referred to treatment centres - not the courts. Deaths from overdosing have plummeted. Designer drugs (the ones often with deadly side-effects) are not popular. HIV infections are dropping (unlike the dramatic rise in Ireland), and again the predicted uptake by new users has not happened.
I have a confession to make. For 20 years I was a user of nicotine. I waited until I was 18 before I started smoking (much to the amusement of my children that I was so law-abiding), but it took 20 years before I stopped being an addict. Had I contracted cancer during my time as an addict it would not have helped to have been branded a criminal at the same time. So what exactly is the difference?
*European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction 2012 Annual Report