It’s time to talk honestly about drug use

We acknowledge drug use, but refuse to discuss it or make it safe

Like many controversial phenomena in Irish culture, recreational drug use is something that has remained generally frowned upon and been swept under the carpet for years. Certainly when it comes to the general “drug problem”, the national discourse casts drug use in a completely negative light.

We are taught to shun and ignore the heroin addicts dotted about the streets of Dublin, “they’re wasters”, we’re told. Drug-related gang crime is rampant and the Gardaí are the supposed heroes in a constant battle against the supply of illicit drugs.

Sensational claims are made on RTÉ, like  the “Two Million Euro Worth Of Cocaine Seized In Dublin Port”. We grow up listening to this and the impression we get is that drug use is totally, irrevocably evil. “Just say no!” is what we’re told in school.

However, we soon grow up and it becomes clear that there is a double standard involved when it comes to recreational drug use in young people. The fact is that casual drug use is part and parcel of social life in Trinity, and university life generally for many Irish young people. To quote from the “Drugs” information section on the Students’ Union website:

“You may not have had much (if any) contact with illicit substances to date – but all that could be about to change. You will inevitably come into contact with people who use drugs while you are at college and you may be offered to partake.”

They’re right. I  remember my first festival experience, during which, on the back of the bus to the festival grounds, I had a lively conversation with an enthusiastic late-twenties sunglass-wearing solicitor. He informed me that he worked full time in a respected firm and only takes time off to go to festivals and “go mad on the coke”.

I was young, naif and surprised at this revelation but something that one comes to learn as one gets older is that it’s not just the “addicts” who use drugs, as RTÉ and the government would have you think, but most young people.

While this may shock a minority of readers, I have a feeling that this is a phenomenon most people are aware of. It’s not something that’s admitted openly, hence why surveys fail to give accurate statistics But  I think it’s fair to say, as the SU have stated, that encountering recreational drug use has become an inevitable part of student life. You personally may not have tried it, but you certainly have a friend who has.

The issue at hand here is not recreational drug use. It’s 2017 and it’s clear that “just say no” to drugs is an outdated idea. Young people are encouraged to experiment and try new things, and the reality that no-one admits in the public sphere is that today this involves experimental drug use.

But while there is a silent acceptance of this casual drug use, there is a complete lack of specific and helpful information on the varying recreational drugs and how, if one chooses to do so, to use them safely.

The typical student experience involves “self-educating” about recreational drug use, which is problematic to say the least. Young people are labelled as “foolish” and blamed for overdosing and ending up in hospital after a night out, but absolutely no information is provided on dosage or any of the other aspects of the drug use, leading to these predicaments.

One only has to attend any music festival or large concert to experience this first-hand. Everyone knows someone who “took too much and ended up in the medical tent”. I have heard of people whose first experience of drugs was having something put in their mouth on the dancefloor with no idea of what it was, how strong it would be or where they would end up.

For the most part, these drug-related “mishaps” are non-fatal. Tragically however, this is not always the case. In 2013, a 15 year old girl named Martha Fernback suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after swallowing half a gram of 91% proof MDMA powder. In a deeply sad interview, Martha’s mother describes how after the funeral she looked through her daughter’s internet history and found that she had been on Google looking for “ways to take ecstasy safely”, just hours before her death.

Martha’s failed efforts to find answers on safe drug use are symptomatic of the alarming lack of information and advice for young people on drug use. Why is it that the average young person learns more about safe drug use from chatting with fellow students in smoking areas than from institutions which claim to provide for their citizen’s safety and wellbeing

The drug situation in Dublin at the moment is far from safe. There is a complete lack of awareness of purity and correct dosages, which leads to young people making misinformed decisions, and risking their health.

Some of the most valuable safe drug use information available in the public sphere is from Facebook pages like Humans of the Sesh and the magazine FOURFOUR, which has published articles and infographics in the run up to Electric Picnic entitled “Guide to staying safe using club/festival drugs”.

These efforts are commendable, and the information contained in them is far more comprehensive and useful than the vague and general information available from colleges and other bodies. However these efforts are nowhere near the full extent of what’s needed.

The fact is that there is little or no difficulty involved in obtaining drugs for young people today in Dublin or any large city. Hundreds of thousands are spent on  the Gardaí tackling drug-dealing each year, dealers are arrested and seizures of stock are made, and yet, the availability never falls. Surely, as this goes on, someone ought to realise that the system itself is inherently flawed. The efforts of the Gardaí and those involved is commendable but misdirected and failing to make any real change in the situation.  

Classism, ignorance and ingrained conservatism are all to blame. It’s much easier for those in power to look the other way when young people die of overdoses and re-use the old line that “they should have just said no”. They point to the latest large drug bust in Dublin Port, saying  “Look at the good work we’re doing.” They take cocaine in private rooms, and then give jail time to dealers.

I invite any TD or policy maker to come to Trinity Ball or any other large concert,  speak to the young people, and then tell me that their drug policy is effective. After speaking with medics in the first aid tent. After speaking to Martha’s family, or to any of the countless families who have lost young people to drug-related deaths.

The silent acceptance of injustice, paired with inaction and repression, is a classic trait of Irish culture. We repress, ignore, and hide problems away  in the cupboard until they reach a crisis point. But the drug conversation is not going away.

In order to make effective policy for the current situation, a dramatic destigmatization of the terms surrounding drug usage needs to occur.

We need to talk about decriminalisation and legalisation. We need to talk about testing kits. And, at the very least, effective and accurate information needs to be provided on safe drug use. Rumours and stigma perpetuate the cycle. It’s time, to start talking.

Hugh Whelan

Hugh Whelan is the current Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student.