Due to what is essentially a legal fuck up on the part of Irish Court of Appeals, Ireland is now host to a Purge-esque 48-hour window in which it is temporarily legal to possess ketamine, ecstasy pills, magic mushrooms, small amounts of crystal meth and a host of other head-shop drugs. While TDs and senators frantically scramble to put together and sign into law a new bill, the Irish are abuzz. The excitement is palpable; there are satirical articles, cautionary tweets and tongue-in-cheek Facebook statuses abound, with the strange turn of events reaching a variety of mainstream media outlets outside of Ireland and being greeted with a mix of incredulity, disgust and joy. People are preparing themselves to exploit the legal loophole that the government are clamouring to close up as soon as possible.
I say, what’s the rush? Maybe we should just leave the drugs that way. Maybe we should decriminalise all of them.
Drug criminalisation is a deeply contentious issue, with both sides of the debate being argued with equal passion. The prevailing attitude, as evident in laws around the world, is the “war on drugs” approach; that is, that the key to defeating the problem of drug use in our society is to strictly control substances by prosecuting anyone who possesses or sells them. I guess it is an intuitively sensible response; fear of repercussions does tend to deter certain behaviours. However, I gripe about this approach; it’s comes from a shaky rationale and I question the efficacy and fairness of it when applied.
The stalwarts of the drug criminalisation movement ardently insist on how drugs being illegal protects the public good. They warn of the extent of harm caused by drug use to oneself and to society, and of the addictive nature of these substances. Sounds convincing, but humour me here.
Drugs are really harmful, so say the prohibitionists. I imagine these people were left somewhat dumbfounded when Professor David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and former drugs advisor to the British government, produced a harm index in which he deemed alcohol to be the most harmful drug of all. The legal liquid outperformed its controlled counterparts. While drugs such as meth, crack cocaine, and heroin were deemed more harmful to the user than booze (though not by much), alcohol was deemed by far the most harmful to society in terms of its ability to incite crime, cause family adversities, incur economic cost and generally damage a community. So following the logic that drug criminalisation is all about preventing harm, alcohol should be the most illegal drug of all, yet this isn’t the case. The main scourge of our society, it seems, is staring us right in the face and is never that difficult to obtain.
Drugs are uniquely and seductively addictive though, right? All it takes is one smoky embrace from marijuana, one hit of gear or one line of coke to set someone on a non-stop journey to a louse-infested crack-den. Right? This was once the fear that seized lawmakers in the 1960s, amid research done by scientists which found that if you put a rat in a cage, teach him how to self-administer heroin and let each rat have at it, many of the rats became addicted. Junkie rats went so far as to forego food and water in favour of their fix until they died. It’s bleak, so of course it scared people.
Yet experimental psychologist Bruce K. Alexander regarded the study with scepticism; he proposed that the cage, not the drug, was responsible for the ensuing addiction, and tested his hypothesis in a famous experiment called Rat Park (which has been wonderfully explained in comic form). He created two different environments; one in which rats were isolated to single cages, like the initial experiment, and the other a wide, expansive area with lots of toys, cedar shavings to nest in and most importantly other rats. The rats in Rat Park were in a positive social environment, and there was a significant difference in results; Rat Park rats resisted the opiates much more than the isolated rats did. Even if rats were released into the park already physically dependant, they would suffer through the withdrawals and attempt to socialise with other rats in lieu of using.
Problem with criminalisation
Lots of factors contribute to the development of addiction, but this study would imply that isolation and loneliness play a huge role. This is the essential problem with criminalisation; it comes from the position that those who use drugs should be punished or otherwise shunned by society. This, in conjunction with the pernicious culture of families being encouraged to give addicts ultimatums à la “Stop using or we’ll never speak to you again”, further pushes drug abusers to the edges of society where their addiction will only deepen. People in a better community environment, who are happier and see their lives as a park, are much less likely to suffer addiction than those who see life as a cage.
It probably isn’t fair to dismiss criminalisation entirely without taking into account the effectiveness of the approach. Those who are pro-criminalisation will point out the effectiveness of drug policy, citing the sharp decline in drug use since drugs were made illegal. It would be remiss, however, to neglect to mention that the turn of the 20th century brought with it an increasing awareness in the medical consequences of drug use . Before this, mothers were giving opium manufactured by Bayer to colicky babies. They had no idea what they were doing. With the new knowledge on the effect of drugs, it would be fair to say that the decline in the use of drugs could be attributed in part to the sheer knowledge that drugs were unhealthy.
Still, decriminalisation would be total bedlam. This is the idea that has lit a fire under the ass of the TDs who are, as I type, burning the midnight oil to draft legislation. They may be inclined to relax a little more if they had heard of Portugal’s decision to decriminalise illicit street drugs, which has been called a success by many. Money that was once used to police drug use is now being channelled into community outreach and early intervention for people with addictions. There has since been a decrease in drug overdoses and in new needle-borne infections e.g HIV. Contrary to what detractors predicted, the policy did not transform Lisbon into a godless “drug mecca”.
Impact on less well off
One could point to Sweden, a country which has implemented a successful drug policy based on zero tolerance. This is true; though not only will I point out that Sweden has a similar emphasis on treatment, community outreach and early prevention as Portugal does (albeit it done differently), but I will also point out that criminalisation is problematic on principle. Though Ireland and America are different countries, America serves as an interesting example of why criminalisation is inherently bad. Alcohol prohibition, regarded by most as having been a massive failure, foreshadowed an issue which would come to define the “war on drugs”; journalists as early as 1925 such as H.L Mencken pointed out that the prohibition seemed to disproportionately target the poorer members of society. The rich were, it was reported, more likely to get away with illegal alcohol consumption (not entirely surprising), and in addition had the capital to buy up liquor stores and wholesalers so as to stockpile goods for legal home consumption before the Prohibition laws came into effect, which of course gave them an advantage. This discriminatory aspect of prohibition laws have continued on today; I feel as if I can safely state, without reference, that those in the upper castes tend to evade prosecution much more adeptly than the working class. It is this imbalance that further makes the case for decriminalisation.
I am not in any way suggesting that drugs aren’t harmful, nor am I suggesting that anyone should go out and take all of the drugs (though I can’t control what you do and do not do); I’m proposing that the criminalisation of drugs has been ineffective in achieving its aims. In an ideal world, laws exist primarily to shape the individuals within a society into better versions of themselves. I am not convinced that the criminalisation of drugs as it currently stands has done anything to benefit us, nor has it managed to allay the issue of drug addiction within society. After blindly swinging the hammer of prohibition for so long, I cannot fathom how lawmakers haven’t begun to question themselves. Perhaps then we should view this court decision as a legal opportunity, and not a legal mistake.