Mar 2006

Drug policy

I predicted equal parts infuriating, confusing and enlightening. I was right about the first two.

Questions and Answers

I watched Questions and Answers last night. It’s a fairly conventional political panel show… five people – some or all of whom are politicians – answer questions posed by a studio audience, while a chairperson oversees the debate which develops. It’s a tried and tested formula, giving the public a limited opportunity to express opinion and provide feedback on policy to those who shape or influence it.

The chairperson in this case is John Bowman; an amiable enough man, but with enough forcefulness to take control of the debate when it threatened to drift. He also successfully cut off the politicians when they slipped into prepared party-political broadcasts. Overall he acquited himself well, though he wasn’t ever really challenged by a guest, nor had to deal with any serious arguments amongst the panel. So I’ll have to reserve judgment a while longer.

Incidentally, “well done!” to Ireland’s Public Service Broadcaster, RTÉ (Radio Telefí­s Éireann). I was very impressed when the BBC started to keep their news and current affairs programmes online to download for a full week after broadcast. While the RTÉ site is – in general – extremely limited compared with the BBC, it appears that they keep an archive of weekly broadcasts going back at least two months. Very groovy.

But what about the actual content of the show?

For me it was notable for two things. One, the fact that a government minister made an intelligent and perceptive remark during a debate on natural resources. Most government ministers go their entire time in office without making a single intelligent or perceptive remark on any subject.

The second thing it was notable for was the fact that (always assuming Questions and Answers is representative of mainstream political debate), it appears mainstream debate on drug policy is mired in ignorance and idiocy in Ireland. Even more so than in the UK. Which gives me the head-staggers.

Ignorance and idiocy

Between 1989 and 1992 three of my friends died as a result of drug misuse. In all three cases it was ignorance of what they were taking that was directly to blame. My views on drug policy spring directly from this. And I’m fortunate in that my gut feeling on this issue is backed up by reason and precedent. It’s always difficult when that’s not the case.

In the case of drug policy, however, the issue is so murky – obscured by decades of lies, emotion, bad policy, ignorance, idiocy and vested interests – as to make “reason” quite difficult to recognise. The arguments against a blanket prohibition of drugs can – as a great man once said – be proven on an etch-a-sketch. I have walked intelligent, rational people step-by-step through those arguments and been met sometimes with blank stares, though often with outright hostility. It’s too obvious. Too clear. It kicks the legs from under people. “If that rock-solid truth can be incontravertibly shown to be just an absurd belief, then what the hell’s next?”

The War on Some Drugs is demonstrably counter-productive. Treating society’s relationship with psychoactive substances via the criminal justice system creates vast amounts of preventable suffering, and wastes significant resources. Drugs, when they are misused, can be dangerous. This goes for aspirin as much as heroin. But dealing with any dangerous substance by placing its marketing and supply into the hands of violent criminals is clearly insane. People talk about “controlled substances”. It’s a phrase right out of Orwell. Do people understand, I wonder, when they use that phrase… when they say “controlled substances”… that they are talking about precisely those substances over which we have relinquished all control?

Yes, guns and illegal drugs are tightly bound together in modern Irish society. But that’s only because of that word “illegal” that sits before “drugs”. Guns and aspirin aren’t tightly bound together. Neither (by and large) are guns and alcohol. I wonder how long that would remain the case if we were to introduce alcohol prohibition though? How long before the armed gangsters started smuggling in Russian vodka… or making their own? So it’s vital to bear in mind, when linking “cannabis and ecstasy” to gun crime (as most of the panel succeeded in doing on the show last night), that the actual link is forged by the law.

What lunatic honestly believes that gun-wielding criminals are the best people to handle the importation and distribution of highly addictive drugs? People with a vested interest in getting as many people using as much of their product as possible. Instead, why not take half the money we spend on drug prevention and invest it in safe, clean, medically supervised distribution of addictive drugs at cost price to the end user? In one stroke, addicts have to carry out far less crime (if any) to feed their habit. A huge benefit to society and another massive saving of resources. At the same time, they are getting medically pure drugs and therefore suffering far less illnesses as a result of their drug use. This places a lesser strain on the medical system, and gives the addict the strength to move towards a more healthy lifestyle. And finally, though no less significantly, the addict is purchasing their drugs from a professional trained to offer support, advice and encouragement to seek help in quitting.

Taking drug users out of the criminal justice system then frees up additional police resources to deal with any violent or acquisitive crime still resulting from problem addicts. I’m not suggesting that a burglar escape prison because they’re an addict. Merely that they be sent to prison for their crime. Not their illness.

Because let’s not avoid this point. One day history students will look back at our time and be horrified at the barbarity with which we treated drug addicts. They’ll wonder, idly, why cigarette smokers and alcoholics were spared prison time. The explanation that’ll make most sense to future historians will be that vested interests… the tobacco companies and big drinks businesses… had enough influence to ensure their users avoided the punishment heaped upon users of other substances.

But the fact remains; a heroin addict is sick. In the same way an alcoholic is sick. For some reason though, we think that persecution and incarceration is the best way of dealing with one; while we accept that support and counselling is almost certainly the best way to deal with the other. I can’t imagine the alcoholic who would benefit from a spell in prison as punishment for possessing a can of beer. I can only imagine that person would have a bigger drink problem upon emerging from prison, and will also have probably lost whatever form of income they had prior to their prison time. In other words, by locking them up we damage them. And we damage society.

On last night’s show however, there was apparently universal belief, among panel and audience, that a zero-tolerance prohibitionist approach to drug possession (accompanied by mandatory minimum prison sentences) is the best way to deal with “the reality of Ireland’s gun culture”.

I find it bizarre that so many people can fail to see that the approach used for the last few decades – prohibition – has clearly created the current situation, and will continue to make it worse so long as we keep at it. Albert Einstein once said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. How long before Ireland realises its attitude towards drug policy is insane?

Posted in: Opinion