Pubdate: Sat, 12 Jul 2008
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2008 The Irish Times
Author: Carol Coulter, Legal Affairs Editor


Statistics on heroin, cocaine and cannabis use here are starker than
ever. Is it time to forge a new approach to how we tackle drugs and
drug addiction? asks Carol Coulter. EARLIER THIS WEEK we heard that
the number of heroin addicts on methadone maintenance programmes has
now reached 10,000. The week before we heard that the number of people
using cocaine has doubled since 2003, with a four-fold increase in
certain parts of the country.

In May a conference was told that a survey of teenagers in the
south-east had shown that 41 per cent of them had used cannabis, twice
as many as their European counterparts, while almost 50 per cent had
used some illegal drug.

None of this comes as a surprise to Dr Paul O'Mahony, who has been
examining drugs, crime and prison policy in Ireland for decades. It is
yet further evidence, he says, of the failure of the policy of
prohibiting drugs, which he believes has actually contributed to the
growth in their misuse.

He has just published The Irish War on Drugs: the Seductive Folly of 
Prohibition, in
which he argues for the ending of prohibition, recognising as a human 
right the right to
use drugs, while embracing a policy of reducing drug use and drug abuse through
education and social programmes aimed at those most vulnerable to 
abusing drugs and to
their negative effects.

"I am not arguing for drug use," he stressed, "and I am not arguing
for doing nothing about drug harm. But the best way to get people to
behave responsibly about drugs is to treat them responsibly." He
points out that ever since humanity discovered cocoa leaves, or
peyote, or the arts of fermentation or distillation, intoxication has
been part of the culture of most human societies - as, indeed, it is
of ours - provided the intoxication is by alcohol.

Recourse to intoxication by some people in some circumstances is part
of what humanity is and, just as alcohol prohibition was futile in the
United States in the early years of the last century, so the
prohibition of drugs is futile today.

The policy of prohibition, which places the criminal justice system at
the heart of drug control and labels all drugs as equally harmful,
while accepting the legal sale and consumption of alcohol, nicotine
and prescription drugs, cannot work and clearly has not worked, either
in Ireland or anywhere else, he says. It alienates young people from
adult messages about drugs, which they see as hypocritical, and
inhibits a fact-based and rational discussion about drug use.

Prohibition is not only futile, he believes, it makes drug abuse and
the attendant harms worse than they would otherwise be.

In his book he looks at the history of drug control policy, largely
driven by the US. He distinguishes three strands in the thinking about
the problem of growing drug use: the promotion of the idea of a
"drug-free world" through prohibition and the use of the criminal law
against users and suppliers; the "harm-reduction" model, where the
reality of drug use is acknowledged and, by some, tolerated, while the
emphasis is on reducing the harm caused and minimising drug abuse; and
the human rights perspective, which believes that the taking of drugs
is not wrong, evil or harmful in itself, and that the individual has a
fundamental right to privacy and bodily integrity, including the
taking of mood-altering substances, provided that this does not impact
on the welfare or rights of others.

The book describes the combination of a prohibitionist with a
harm-reduction strategy which has dominated Irish policy on drugs
since 1997, and which initially led to a significant reduction in
drug-related crime and an improvement in services for addicts,
especially through methadone maintenance programmes. But it has failed
to halt the growth in drug use, he says, or risky activity like
sharing needles.

"Perhaps the worst thing that prohibition has done is create criminal
gangs. That has led to a cheapening of life, more violence, and
affected the quality of life for everyone," he says.

Drug users, and particularly addicts, were driven to crime to feed
their habit, leading to a huge increase in the prison population, much
of it addicted. That, in turn, led to the prison system itself playing
a major role in the spread of drugs, hepatitis and HIV/Aids.

"The prohibition regime itself plays a significant role, both as a
direct cause of specific avoidable risks and, more broadly, because it
promotes a climate in which rash, unsafe behaviours and negative
outcomes are far more likely," he says.

He points out that leaving the importation, production and sale of
drugs in criminal hands ensures that there is no control over their
contents, and they are often contaminated by toxic substances, which
can lead to the injury - or death - of users.

They are consumed in a furtive environment, where no information is
provided on the dangers of sharing needles, leading to the spread of
HIV/Aids among drug users. Nor, he says, is any information given to
users about the rise in tolerance levels to certain drugs and the
dangers of addiction until it is too late.

TAKING DRUGS OUT of this environment would permit an honest discussion
of drugs and truthful education about them, he says. It would
distinguish between the use of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy,
consumed by millions of people without disastrous effects for most of
them on the one hand, and more dangerous and addictive drugs like
cocaine and heroin on the other.

Ending prohibition would probably lead to a reduction in drug use
overall, he says, pointing to the example of the Netherlands, which
introduced a policy of permitting the legal use of cannabis in 1972.

The numbers of young people using cannabis went down, and the number
of people going on to hard drug use also went down. Teenagers in the
Netherlands are less likely than many in Europe - and much less likely
than Irish teenagers - to use cannabis.

"They made cannabis boring, it was something people in their late 20s
and 30s did to waste their afternoons. It had no glamour for
teenagers. Prohibition is an engine of counter-productivity and
attracts young people into drugs. They are curious, they want to

He acknowledges that it is very difficult for one country, be it the
Netherlands or Ireland, to embrace a legalisation stance in isolation,
and that the Netherlands has become a magnet, not only for cannabis
users, but for drug criminals. But he points out that the liberal
policy towards cannabis does not prevent the Dutch police from being
very tough on drug criminals.

The only realistic response must therefore be an international one,
steering international law away from the rhetoric of the "war on
drugs" and towards a policy of placing drug use within the same legal
and human rights framework as applies to the use of alcohol. But,
surely, there is no realistic prospect of such a policy being adopted?
O'Mahony accepts that, at the moment, the political consensus is very
much against it, but he adds: "Beneath the surface there is huge
turmoil. A lot of people are arguing against prohibition."

He cites economist Milton Friedman, the Economist magazine and the US
National Academy of Sciences, who have all offered trenchant critiques
of the prohibitionist policy.

However, he acknowledges that the US National Academy of Sciences then
went on to recommend no change in the policy, on the basis of a "fear
of the unknown".

An issue not dealt with in the book, though he agrees that it is
significant, is that there are many vested interests involved in
prohibition. The "war against drugs" is a multibillion dollar
industry, involving not only law enforcement agencies working in the
US and around the globe, but a prison industry in the US which props
up many local economies. The alcohol industry is also unlikely to
welcome the legalisation of a major competitor.

But O'Mahony insists that public opinion can change. "There is a huge
silent minority here who feel that taking drugs is their right. They
haven't articulated it, they just do it," he says. He points to the
example of homosexuality, which was treated as a crime punishable by
death for centuries, whereas now the right to express one's sexuality
is seen as a fundamental human right.

He stresses that acknowledging a right to use drugs does not include
the right to drive while under the influence of drugs; nor does it
mean that a person is not responsible for any criminal or harmful acts
undertaken while under such influence.

It would mean that drugs could be sold within a legal regime that
would ensure they did not fall into the hands of children, that
quality was assured, that all users had accurate information on the
negative aspects and dangers of drug use, and that resources could be
diverted away from the drug enforcement part of the criminal justice
system into tackling the causes of drug abuse and its effects.

He rejects the argument that it would lead to an increase in drug use
and points to evidence that it would lead to a reduction. "People have
loads of good reasons for not using drugs. But these are personal
reasons, not because they're illegal.

"We are diverting huge energy, huge money, huge resources, from
tackling the problem. We have created a monster."

This is likely to get worse, he warns.

"There is huge technical development happening in drugs. We are only
just around the corner from memory-enhancing drugs. Middle-class
parents will be looking for them to dope up their children to enhance
their points. We are also close to safe euphorants and drug users
won't be reliant on peasant farmers.

"The future is much more dangerous than the present. Prohibition can't
handle the present. It certainly won't be able to handle the future."

The Irish War on Drugs: The Seductive Folly of Prohibition, is 
published by Manchester
University Press, UKP 55 hardback, UKP 16.99 paperback
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