Pubdate: Tue, 9 Nov 2010
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2010 The Irish Times


VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: We should look at the facts available rather than
our moral intuition when dealing with the consumption of drink and
drugs, writes RICHARD MacCARTHY

MANY OF us have wondered how the economists, governments and bankers
did not learn from past recessions and were unable to foresee our
current crisis. Others admonish the UK and the United States for not
learning from their experiences in Vietnam and Northern Ireland while
they continue to attempt to forcefully bring peace to

I have no doubt that Ireland is failing to learn from the past and
from the experiences of other countries on the issue of illegal drug

I have just completed a philosophy MA and since I have been in
college, I have worked as a nightclub bouncer, a head shop cashier and
am now currently employed in a well-respected family off-licence. I
find myself oddly placed, insofar as I must be one of the few people
in the country to have witnessed the effects of alcohol and the
so-called legal highs from a neutral perspective.

Last summer I handed in my CV to a head shop almost as a joke,
expecting never to hear from the shop again. To my surprise, a week
later I received a phone call to tell me that I had the job, no
interview required.

I learned later that just after I handed in my CV, the shop was robbed
at knifepoint, explaining why the manager was now more than happy to
spend some money hiring another employee.

By this time, head shops had become a public concern, drawing regular
protests and angry questions in the Dail, so I was quite nervous when
at work. My day consisted of showing up at around 1pm and selling the
various pills, powders and herbs on offer in the shop. Although I have
a reasonably liberal outlook, it was still unsettling to sell someone
a pill which was only on the market for a few months and whose
long-term effects were unknown.

I only worked there for a few weeks, but I learned several things from
my stay in the head shop. First, the demand for these drugs was
incredibly high, and the profits were astronomical.

Second, the demand for these drugs surprisingly did not come just from
the poor or the homeless, but from the wealthy, the middle class,
public servants, private sector workers, mothers, fathers, teenagers
as well as the poor, the homeless and the addicted.

I was as likely to sell a cannabis-like herb to a wealthy,
well-dressed businessman, child in arms, as I was to sell something to
a tracksuit-wearing teenager. What was particularly striking was how
unregulated the industry was; apart from the known side effects of
these drugs, the general attitude in the shop was surprisingly cavalier.

Both the manager and the other employee would regularly be high when
working, which at times made the working environment quite
uncomfortable. The manager would rarely ask for ID even from obviously
underage children ("over 18's only" was perhaps the one rule --
self-enforced by the shop owners -- that was even occasionally adhered
to), although sometimes I was told to be extra careful because "the
gardai are outside".

Surprisingly, the sight of an addict or a homeless person spending
their money on a legal high was a much rarer sight than you might
think; I firmly believe that, although they were totally out of
control, head shops were not nearly as poisonous or as corrupting as
they were made out to be by politicians and the media.

That being said, I do still clearly remember one addict couple who
would arrive in every couple of days, hands shaking, noses running,
barely able to communicate even with each other, throwing down
handfuls of change onto the counter for the cheapest, strongest high.

I now work in a well-respected family off-licence, where everyone is
diligent in their work, going out of their way never to sell to anyone
under 18 or to sell too much to one person.

It came as a shock to see that many of the more unfavourable aspects
of my past job followed me into this new one. For example, it was a
slightly numbing feeling to realise that many of our best customers
(usually slightly gruff, friendly, middle-aged men, always with a
story to tell) were in fact alcoholics, coming back to us because they
are trapped in a life utterly controlled by drink.

Lacking the attention-grabbing shock value of the drug addict (a truly
disgusting sight), these alcoholics move silently among the rest of
society, unseen, just about better off than those living on the
street, but with a future that is nevertheless as hopeless.

Talking to an alcoholic is not as disturbing as talking to an addict
desperate to buy to a hard drug, but the false smile of an alcoholic
somehow seems sadder. From what little I have seen, alcoholism is far
more common and, in some ways, far more debilitating than drug
addiction in Ireland.

I have been studying philosophy for four years now, and although it is
not very good at finding you a career, learning philosophy does
encourage you to examine problems in unusual ways.

I am particularly interested in political and moral philosophy, and I
believe that Ireland's drug policy is in need of a slightly more
philosophical outlook.

To me there is a large gap between what we would consider "morally
right" and the policies that would actually be most effective in
dealing with the negative aspects of drugs in this country.

People do not want to endorse the taking of drugs by introducing some
kind of legalisation scheme (because drugs are morally bad), but the
Dutch, who famously have a highly liberal policy concerning cannabis,
in fact have one of the lowest rates of cannabis consumption in Europe.

Furthermore, many people do not know that Portugal decriminalised all
drugs (including hard drugs) over 10 years ago, and rather than an
addiction epidemic, drug use for many hard drugs has measurably
decreased, with a marked decrease in the number of drug-related deaths.

When an addict comes to the attention of the authorities in Portugal,
he goes before a medical board that advises the person on a method of
treatment for the addiction, and no charges are brought against the

In Ireland, this person's treatment would most likely be a lengthy
stay in prison, compounding the problem of addiction and opening up
criminal activity as a means to pay for this addiction.

It seems paradoxical, but the available evidence suggests that
legalising at least some drugs would actually lower drug consumption
across the country.

A proposal to legalise and tax various cannabis-related activities in
California was defeated in a statewide ballot on November 2nd last.
The outcome was close -- 54 per cent of California voters voted No,
and 46 per cent voted Yes. However, even if Proposition 19 had passed,
the sale of marijuana would have remained illegal under federal law
via the Controlled Substances Act.

Cannabis has been shown to be non-addictive, impossible to overdose on
and is arguably slightly worse for your health than tobacco. Minister
for Health Mary Harney recently stated she is open to the possibility
of legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes; the drug relieves pain
and swelling, while the side effect of hunger is proven to help
maintain the appetites of chemotherapy patients.

There is also mounting evidence that the drug may actually fight
certain cancers. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis can also be alleviated
through the consumption of cannabis. Furthermore, the gateway label
attached to cannabis is a topic that has been vigorously contested in
the scientific community.

Supporters of legalising cannabis in California argued it would not
only bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue to a state that, like
Ireland, has serious financial problems, but would also free up police
spending and reduce overcrowding in prisons. It was hoped that the
powerful drug cartels would lose their main supply of income in
California if the referendum passed. Opponents of Proposition 19
claimed it contained flaws that could have serious unintended
consequences on public safety, workplaces and federal funding

I do not understand why a version of the policy implemented by the
Netherlands and the Portugal has not been more seriously considered in
Ireland. This is no longer a question that should only be discussed by
college students and teenagers -- examining the data available from
countries that have legalised some or all drugs has shown that drug
legalisation can be extremely beneficial to all of society.

Government regulation would be paramount -- there could be no return
to the Wild West methods of the head shops, where the effects of the
drugs sold were unknown and where there were almost no rules as
regards what can be sold to who.

It is certainly surprising to think that legalising a drug could
actually lower drug consumption, but the available data suggests that
the positive effects would go much further than that: criminals would
be out of a job, freeing up the time and money of the Garda; underage
youths would require an ID to buy drugs that are currently far easier
to purchase illegally than alcohol; precious extra tax revenue would
be generated (what if legalising cannabis meant a hospital in your
area, or no pay cut or pension levy?); addicts would not be foolishly
persecuted, and with the money saved from pursuing and imprisoning
these people, they could be protected and helped by their government

And yes, those liberals would also finally get the freedom to do what
they wanted to do in their own homes. It isn't intuitive, it does not
sit easily with our moral compass, but if we could just let our drug
policy be decided by the facts available to us and not our moral
intuitions, then a whole cast of drug-related problems could be
quickly and efficiently solved. And a little extra tax revenue
wouldn't hurt either. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake