Devil’s Advocate: Legalise drugs

Stephen Stack


Last Tuesday night, Minister for State Alex White told the Dail that cannabis-based medical products are to be made available to the public. However, he added that “The Government has no plans to alter or repeal the current strict legal controls on cannabis and cannabis products in Ireland”. What’s of most interest here is his reference to ‘strict legal controls’. Let’s face it, finding some variety of ‘illicit substances’ simply is not a problem anymore for almost everyone reading this. Strict legal controls just aren’t really a thing when it comes to drugs. If it isn’t some ‘mate’ of yours who can deliver the goods, then you can just pop online to one of the many, many sites that have quickly risen to replace the Silkroad. The ‘war on drugs’ initiated by many states has simply failed to control consumption or supply of drugs. But now, rather than asking ‘how can we gain control of the drugs market?’, we should be asking whether we should even want to control it at all.

Why can’t our culture let people make their own rational decisions on whether or not they should take drugs?  While I’m not trying to make the claim there aren’t people seriously harmed by drug abuse, I am going to say that lots of peoples’ lives have also been made a lot better by taking them. People seem to have a pretty great time taking them. Being realistic most of those people won’t end up as a junkie living under a bridge. While cannabis and cocaine, amphetamines and LSD probably do pose some sort of health risk (this is even quite debatable), whether physical or mental, so do loads of other things! Through consuming diets filled with red meat and junk food we’re probably all eating ourselves into early graves; there’s no doubt that the decisions we make in our love lives often cause massive amounts of damage to our mental health, and, sure, dodgy investment decisions tear many a life apart. But the common feature in all these things is risk. While we may live to regret all those decisions someday, maybe we won’t. When each of you ask yourselves whether or not prohibition on drugs is ok, you have to ask yourself how much risk an individual should be allowed to take with their lives and livelihoods. Any reasonable answer to this question will be: a lot. We let people gamble, we let them enter the boxing ring, we let them jump out of planes and ride motorcycles, we even permit people to join the army and get shot at for money.

If you say that taking drugs is simply too risky a decision for someone to make, then you have to have a problem with a huge amount range of daily human activities. Fundamentally, we own our own bodies and if we’re not harming anyone else then we can do with them what we please. If someone decides that a happy life is going to be one with heroin in it, then that’s his or her decision.

But in most instances taking drugs isn’t even that risky at all! We constantly are fed the same myths, bordering on propaganda, about drugs. I’m sure plenty of you have heard a tale about LSD forming crystals at the top of your spinal column and staying there for the rest of your life. But this is simply not true; LSD water soluble so won’t remain in your body. Long-term cannabis use is less harmful than not getting enough exercise. Ecstasy is statistically less dangerous than horse riding. Yet still we’re told ‘drugs are too dangerous, they’re too risky’, and no one is willing to listen to anyone saying otherwise. This deliberate unwillingness to consider scientific evidence is illustrated by the firing of David Nutt from his role as British Drug advisor when he demonstrated that LSD and ecstasy aren’t dangerous.

Yet people still die taking these drugs that should be safe: seven youths died in Scotland taking pills last July, three men died from drug overdoses in Kinsale a year ago. But these people aren’t the victims of drugs, they’re the victims of prohibition. When we criminalise drugs we push them into the hands of unregulated producers who aren’t concerned with safety or quality. The unregulated chemicals in what the seven Scottish youths thought was ecstasy is what killed them; the three men in Kinsale died from fake synthetic equivalents of MDMA and PMMA. These people were exercising a right that was theirs, and the government’s failure to substantiate that right is part of the reason why they are dead.

But it’s not just when people die from poor quality substances that the government has blood on its hands. Another crime is public education about drugs in Ireland which is, frankly, a joke. In the attempt to realise an ideal, drug free society we insulate the people who do decide to take drugs from any information that could help them treat substances responsibly. People are still puzzled about where exactly problems with drug abuse come from when they need look no further than our schools’ drug education which does little more than sit students down and tell them ‘drugs are dangerous kids so don’t take them ok!’. The equivalent of this policy can be found in the US where abstinence is taught as the only form of birth control yet many act as if they are shocked and surprised at the rates of teenage pregnancy.

When we prohibit drugs and refuse to talk about them, we have to bear some of the responsibility when people abuse them: we’ve neglected to tell people ‘if you’re going to do drugs, don’t be stupid and here’s how you do it’. While ‘Drink-aware’ seems to be the buzzword for solving our alcohol problem, our society insists that telling people about safe drug use is dangerous. We can’t seriously educate people about the dangers of heroin if we refuse to talk about it. Over twenty seven per cent of Irish people have, at least once in their lives, tried an illegal substance, yet we haven’t provided a single one of them with any sort of drug use education. Prohibition is what leads us down the road to unhealthy abuse.

But even if you don’t buy any of this, then just consider the human cost that we inflict on others through prohibition. The battle raging over the control of the US drug supply has turned Mexico into a warzone and left 60,000 people dead since 2006. Having survived two previous assassination attempts, Mayor of Tiquicheo, Maria Santos Gorrostieta, was executed for standing up to organised crime. The drug trade fuels FARC in Colombia and countless other terrorist organisations. Are we really willing to let so many people die and empower the organisations that are killing them for the sake of stopping others making decisions about their own lives?

Drug prohibition is a relic of a religious and cultural landscape of Ireland that is no longer relevant to us. We’re paying money to do a shitty job of control and to ensure everyone gets unregulated and risky products. We’re lining the pockets of the worst people around in order to restrict a basic right. Drug prohibition is stupid, it’s backwards, and it’s holding society back from taking a responsible attitude to something which inevitably will exist.