We need an open dialogue on recreational drugs

Hester Malin argues that a more frank discussion of drugs would lead to better ways of preventing drug-related deaths


I’m just going to say it: I have taken drugs. Be it the odd glass of cheap wine at fresher’s week, the dab of some non-specific white powder on that fated A-Level results night, or sitting on a mattress shooting up somewhere deep in the boroughs of Dublin, you just don’t know. To you, this might seem like a huge spectrum of drug-taking. But according to the 2011 report on the Irish population’s use of illegal drugs, it’s all the same. Over 27% reported to have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime. Pop your head into District 8 next Saturday and let me know if you think that statistic is legitimate.

Can we trust the statistics?

“People will not admit to taking drugs, nor will people stop taking them. That’s the big issue here. The fact that we as a nation are taking more illicit substances than ever before is not changing. The first step we need to take is to talk.”

Official government figures and reports are notoriously weak for gauging the level of illicit drug taking in a country, let alone in universities, so we can throw them out the window. The drug business is very much an “off the books” enterprise. It relies on deals ranging from the huge drug gangs operating in the heart of Mexico City, to your mate standing around awkwardly in Temple Bar looking for the dealer. I highly doubt either would have asked for a receipt.

So, we can’t truly figure out the definitive statistics for current illegal drug-taking trends. Does this really matter though?  Well, it does if you are working for the government, who are trying to pick up the sword of The War on Drugs and fight the good fight.

But let’s be realistic for a second. People will not admit to taking drugs, nor will people stop taking them. That’s the big issue here. The fact that we as a nation are taking more illicit substances than ever before is not changing. The first step we need to take is to talk. Without being honest about drugs, people are unable to give real advice or to educate, as they cannot admit to drugs’ inescapable appeal. The government aren’t able to give guidance without first acknowledging the fact that people drop for obvious reasons.

A different approach


We need to re-examine the reality of drug-use and see what needs to be changed. For over a century, global and national governments have been deliberating on what to do about the drug epidemic. Unfortunately, in terms of lowering drug-related deaths and maladies, no one has been successful. The collateral damage of the drug industry is what our parents and teachers know to be the culture of drugs: teenage deaths, trafficking, gang warfare and addiction.

But drug users know it to be something entirely different. Taking a dab of ecstasy in a club on your friend’s birthday is not the same as tapping your arm for veins. Like the abortion debate, it’s time we talk about it.

We are animals of a base nature, looking for our next fix of dopamine. It may well be that sweet release of handing in your paper on time, or somewhere in between your second and third pill, but we essentially do what we want in order to have a good time.

And with this slow realisation, the paradigm of prohibition’s reign is ending: we’ve seen the legalisation of cannabis in certain states of the United States, the increasing evidence of ecstasy helping depression and anxiety disorders, and medicinal cannabis being used effectively to treat the side-effects of chemotherapy.  

But this is a tight-rope to walk. Increasing societal acceptance of drugs needs to be paralleled with control. In The University of Manchester, 85% of students said they have tried illegal drugs. That’s three times the rate for 16-26 year olds in the population of the UK as a whole. A friend of mine at that university told me that three Freshers had died from drug overdoses within the first three weeks of college. This statistic comes from a culture of youthful, furtive liberalism fighting against the retrogressive, unwavering arm of the law. Neither one is right, but the mixture lead to three unnecessary deaths.

Let’s think about the possible outcomes of two drug scenarios. On a small, local level, we see your average Joe Yoke-lover. He’s at a good college, getting solid grades and is relatively happy with life. On one fated night in April, he pops two pills imprinted with Louis Vuitton logos and has a grand old time. Now, he may wake up the next day feeling empty and lost – the recipe for a phenomenal come down. Or he may just not wake up, having accidentally overdosed on the pills he took as they were cut badly with an adulterant called Para-Methoxyamphetamine, or PMA. If there was a more open discussion in society, or even some form of education at schools, this needless fatality could have been avoided.

On a larger level, let’s go a step above: a coke dealer. He has had a relatively tough life, with familial connections to criminal activity. He turns to dealing as a lifestyle choice, dropping out of school as early as 16. One night, he gets arrested for supply of a class A substance and gets sentenced to three years. If the government had encouraged a more open discussion about drugs, the notion of decriminalisation could have prevented this man from losing his freedom, helped to rehabilitate him, and equipped him to find another source of income.

Now, all this is not to say that dealers should be allowed to roam at large whilst young children frolic through streets powdered with cocaine. Ireland is a long way off from your fifth year teacher telling you to test your yokes when you go out, so we might as well put the facts and our opinions out there and urge people to start talking.  

So although ‘don’t do drugs, kids’ has a certain ring to it, the phrase should be modified to ‘let’s talk with an open dialogue about closely controlled manufacturing techniques of purified substances’. But that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. We might not change things for a good few decades, but hey, let’s just talk about it.

Illustration by Sarah Larragy