Pubdate: 8 Mar 1999
Source: Examiner, The (Ireland)
Copyright: Examiner Publications Ltd, 1999
Section: Letters to the Editor
Author: Martin Cooke


WILLIE O'DEA, TD, thinks that we should start imprisoning young people who
experiment with soft drugs like cannabis and ecstasy (The Examiner, March 2).

He is quoted as saying that "teenagers should be threatened with jail
sentences and criminal records to stop rising recreational drug abuse."

I'm sorry to disappoint Mr O'Dea, but such a tactic will just not work.

He only has to look at the US, which has the largest proportion of its
population behind bars of any of the developed countries in the world, a
sizeable minority, if not a majority, of them for non-violent drugs
offences. And yet drug use continues to soar in the US.

Mr O'Dea accepts that lots of the young people who do experiment with soft
drugs are doing well at school and college. So it would seem that their
recreational drug use is not doing them the harm that many people would
have them believe.

Mr O'Dea suggests that we should copy the UK's example of tackling drug use
by teenagers, ignoring the fact that the UK is the only country in the EU
with a higher rate of teenage drug use than Ireland.

And he blithely ignores the fact that we already incarcerate a higher
percentage of our population than any other EU country. Where does he
expect to find the extra prison spaces that would be needed to put his
ideas into practice?

There is already a perception amongst young people that the so-called war
on drugs is really a war against them, and an attack on their lifestyles.

Mr O'Dea is quoted as saying: "I have no problem borrowing a good idea that
has worked elsewhere."

If this is true, and if he is really concerned about the welfare of our
youth, I would suggest that he would do far better to look at the
Netherlands rather than the UK.

The Netherlands took the bold step of trying to separate hard and soft
drugs over 20 years ago. This included the setting up of the so-called
coffee-shops where small quantities of cannabis can be purchased, and the
treating of addiction to harder drugs, like opiates, as the medical problem
that it really is, rather than a legal one.

As a result, they now have the lowest rate of cannabis use by teenagers in
the developed world, and the highest survival rate of opiate addicts. The
average age of opiate addicts is now approaching 40, because largely due to
the fact that existing addicts are not dying and there are very few new
addicts coming on stream.

I wonder just how many young lives Mr O'Dea would like to see ruined by the
suggestions that he makes?

It seems that all Mr O'Dea is really saying is that, in the case of soft
drugs at least, the only real harm that can come from their use is that you
might finish up in prison or with a criminal record for using them.

Well, of course we could argue that the only reason that that is true is
because the government decided to make the drugs illegal in the first place.

The report of the Crime Forum, issued towards the end of last year,
actually suggested we should seriously consider the option of legalising
drugs. That is really the only way we can bring their use under control.

Indeed, at the time, one national newspaper even called for a public debate
on the matter.

Nothing has been heard of this since.

Instead, we now have a junior government minister suggesting we start
locking up our children.

Martin Cooke, Corcormick, Drumkeerin, Co Leitrim.  
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