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Is a Liberal Drug Policy the Solution?

In recent times, there seems to be a growing interest in the idea of a more liberal drug policy in Ireland. If you are someone who considers this country’s drug policy to be unacceptable, or if you are someone who is considering getting on the liberal-drug-policy band wagon, then at the very least, I hope I can raise a few questions for you to mull over, before you do so.

The majority of people in favour of a liberal drug policy argue that with the correct methods, some “soft” drugs could become as common place as alcohol or cigarettes. The argument is that with the right information, people could use drugs in a safe and regulated environment.  Politicians such as Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality have spoken out about our national drug policy, suggesting that we introduce a more liberal alternative similar to the Portugal model. In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Personally, I fail to see why we would decriminalise these drugs, when if anything we are trying to change our society so that people consume less unhealthy substances. Are we not trying to stop people drinking so much alcohol and smoking cigarettes? Why would we suddenly legalise substances that are just as, if not worse for your body?

For example, we have seen how past governments have attempted to reduce the number of people smoking in Ireland. We were after all, the first country in the world to institute an outright ban on smoking in the workplace, a decision which I think we can all agree, was a huge success. Only last month, it was made illegal to smoke in a car with a child present. Even in the past year, there has been a new advertisment campaign launched to tackle our cultural love of alcohol. Again, if we are determined to make our society a healthier one, then why would we make it easier for people to access a whole new realm of addictive toxic substances?

One of the key ideas proposed as part of a more liberal drug policy is “injection rooms”: safe places for people to use drugs without fear of being arrested, or of putting themselves or a member of the public in danger. The idea is that these rooms could be monitored, meaning that used syringes could be collected and safely discarded. Although I’ve read a number of articles about such rooms, there are a worrying number of questions that have yet to be answered. Like what happens if someone dies in these rooms, be it by overdosing or some other means, who is responsible for their death? Are the Government responsible? Are the Government expected to pay a trained professional to be there 24/7 to make sure no one overdoses? Would you be willing to pay additional taxes to pay these professionals? Would you be comfortable if one of these injection rooms was built near where you live, or near your child’s school? If currently illegal drugs were decriminalised, then there will, more than likely, be an increase in the number of people using these drugs, meaning there will be an even greater strain on our public hospitals. We’ve all seen the huge shortage of beds in Irish hospitals this past year; would you be ok knowing that some of these beds were given to people who were suffering the effects of their own recreational drug use, while other patients suffering from illnesses over which they had no control, are forced to wait?

Additionally, a large number of people I know constantly complain about how all those years of SPHE (Social, Personal & Health Education) classes in school were a complete waste of time; that even after listening to all the life stories of people whose lives were destroyed by drugs; even after looking at pictures of people who had lost limbs and years off their lives due to a lifetime of drug abuse, SPHE classes still failed to put them off trying drugs themselves. Some would even go as far as to argue that instead of teaching secondary school students about the health risks associated with drugs, they should instead teach students how to use these drugs safely. However, in my opinion, to say that the education system “failed” you, is just refusing to take responsibility for your own actions. Ultimately, when you leave school and get out into the real world, it’s your decision. If you want to try drugs, it is totally your choice, and therefore your responsibility –it’s not because the Irish education system failed you, it’s because you have decided for whatever reason that trying drugs is something you would like to experience.

And if you do decide that drugs are something you are interested in trying, then you must accept the fact that you are choosing to role a metaphorical dice. The same way, if you choose to smoke a cigarette or to drink alcohol, you are taking a chance; perhaps an almost negligibly small chance, but a chance none the less. These substances are bad for your body –no amount of regulation or information can change that. We all know the cancerous effects of smoking. Every box explicitly states that cigarettes cause cancer which could eventually kill you. The production of cigarettes is strictly regulated and every box displays information regarding the health effects of smoking, yet people continue to smoke recreationally. In fact, according tocancer.ie, by the end of 2016, roughly 5,200 people in Ireland will have died due to tobacco use. If additional toxic substances are introduced into Ireland, these figures can only go up –again, I reiterate: no matter how much information is distributed about how to safely use such substances, or how well regulated their production is, these substances will still be detrimental to your health.

One particular argument that I just can’t accept, is that using drugs is just something all young people inevitably do at one stage or another; that young people are just at a stage when they’re experimenting; that we all succumb to peer pressure eventually. But what people forget is that in the end, no one is more responsible for you than you. By no means, do I condemn people who use drugs, I just expect them to accept and deal with any ramifications of their decision.

However, you might look at the points I’ve made and say “Well, none of these arguments matter, as long as we’ll be saving lives,” and I would have to agree with you there. However, in my experience, people are all for bringing about societal change until their own time, money and convenience is put at risk. It’s actually quite scary how quickly people will dismiss the needs of others when those needs inconvenience their own. And before you judge these people and complain that we live in an “uncaring” society, why not ask yourself the following questions: would you be willing to allow part of your pay cheque to go towards healthcare for people who choose to use drugs? Would you be willing to buy a house next door to someone who actively uses drugs? Would you be comfortable working with or employing someone who actively uses drugs?

But if nothing I’ve said here has dissuaded you from your opinions on Irish drug policy; if you are still adamant that a more liberal system could result in a better healthier society –well then I challenge you, as someone who claims to put so much value in the needs of others, to put your time and money where your mouth is. In the words of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Instead of just sharing a link about a liberal drug policy on Facebook, or showing up to a liberal drug policy “rally”, I challenge you to go out there and get involved with the people who actually work with those who suffer the horrific consequences of drug abuse. Give generously of your money to such amazing organisations as the Rutland Centre, the Churchfield Community Trust and Grattan House Project. Become a volunteer at Cuan Mhuire, a phenomenal institution that does amazing work with people suffering from addiction among other related issues. If a liberal drug policy is introduced into Ireland, it’s more than likely that these organisations will need all the help they can get.