Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2015
Source: Sunday Independent (Ireland)
Copyright: 2015 Independent Newspapers Ltd
Author: Dan O'Brien


The 'war' on drugs was lost before it had ever begun. The futility of 
prohibition is finally beginning to dawn, writes 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 wrongdoers 
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 longterm 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 grownup debate and move to allowing grown-ups 
decide for themselves on what they consume.
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