was having lunch last week with a senior member of
the Garda Siochana or Irish police in Dublin. He is
a man with 32 years of service fighting crime in the
Irish capital. Throughout his career he has witnessed
three major drug waves in the Irish Republic - the
first heroin epidemic of 1980; the explosion of ecstasy
and cocaine use in the mid 1990s and now the introduction
of crack cocaine at the start of the 21st century.
He is a superintendent with some major successes under
his belt including the operation against John Gilligan,
the drugs baron who ordered the murder of my colleague,
the reporter Veronica Guerin. He has seen millions
of pounds of euros in drugs seizures. But the officer
was highly modest about the scale of his achievements
in the fight against drugs.
his most candid moment of the afternoon he came across
with a startling statistic - the police only seize
about ten per cent of the drugs that come into the
state at any time. When you press him about the success
of the war on drugs he is dismissive. This is a war,
he states, that cannot be won.
drug sub-culture still fills me in equal parts with
disgust and ennui, but there seems to no logic to
prolonging what is arguably the most futile conflict
in human history: this so-called war against drugs.
This war, equivalent to fighting a thousand Vietnams
at once, can never be won. Even the United States,
with its superpower monopoly and infinite military
resources, has failed to stem the narcotics flood.
Dictatorships, whether of the Islamic fundamentalist
variety as in Saudi Arabia or the Leninist-capitalist
model in China, have employed brutal methods to suppress
drugs, respectively beheading or blowing the brains
out of alleged dealers. The latter means of dispatching
drug peddlers is also used by the IRA on the streets
of Belfast, Derry and even Dublin.
neither the Saudi and Chinese cliques nor the IRA
can put an end to the production or consumption of
drugs. That is because since the time of the ancient
Greeks - and quite possibly even before - the iron
laws of economics have operated: a permanent demand
creates an inevitable supply. Dealers are prepared
to continue risking their lives on the streets of
Belfast, Beijing and Riyadh to meet that demand.
as the Americans found with alcohol in the 1920s and
1930s, is counter-productive and only gives rise to
a vast criminal sub-culture. The monopolisation of
supply in criminals' hands hikes up the price of drugs
to the point where consumers can only feed their habit
through larceny or prostitution, thus further fuelling
there is the enormous and totally unnecessary cost
to the state of prosecuting those individuals who
choose freely to take drugs as a means of entertainment
or escapism. The Economist magazine has estimated
that between 1996 and 2000 the British taxpayer paid
out £36 million to lock up people who were tested
positive for cannabis. The figures for jailing those
consuming hard drugs are reckoned to be even higher.
there is the one drug which is widely available, legal
and socially acceptable. Families are ripped apart
and lives shattered through the fermentation, advertising
and distribution of the most popular legal drug in
the free world - alcohol. How many young men for instance
will end up in the casualty wings of Irish and British
hospitals this weekend due to obscene bouts of boozing?
What are the odds of someone getting mowed down on
an Irish or British road by a drunken driver?
this we persist in glamorising drink while demonising
drugs. In Ireland more people are killed by drink
and cars than drugs. These are indisputable facts
yet we never hear calls for the prohibition of alcohol
or driving. Nor does society ban dangerous sports
such as hang-gliding, air boarding, bungee jumping
and so on. These activities are taken up by individuals
exercising personal freedom and choice. The state
does not intervene in these choices.
of legalisation claim that drug takers are not free
individuals. This is because the moment they consume
a drug, any drug, their minds are altered and thus
their ability to act as free thinking individuals.
But if you apply this logic consistently then what
about the moment that someone takes a sup of his first
pint, then his second, third, fourth and so on? That
individual's mind is also being altered by chemicals.
Are our opponents seriously suggesting that we should
therefore ban alcohol because it stops us from being
rational individuals the moment we put pint or glass
to our lips? I think not.
of course contains inherent dangers. The sale of narcotics
should be regulated but definitely not controlled
by the state. The prospect of the state selling drugs
to consumers brings to mind Aldous Huxley's Brave
New World, where the regime kept the masses docile
by doling out Soma. Nor should legalisation imply
hedonistic license. The minimum age should range from
between 16 for soft drugs and 18 for harder substances;
those who sell to children must suffer the maximum
are pitfalls over price fixing. An exorbitantly taxed
product will result in what has already happened with
tobacco in Ireland, where the paramilitaries have
flooded the market with cheaper illegal foreign cigarettes.
Tax revenue from drugs should be funnelled into drug
treatment programmes and preventative education aimed
at de-mystifying drugs.
of this is to suggest a solution to the drugs problem
because there is no solution, only the pragmatic management
of it. A reasonable tax on narcotics can help fund
education programmes aimed at reducing demand for
drugs. Furthermore, decriminalisation would wipe out
far more effectively than the Criminal Assets Bureau
the profits earned by loathsome beings, such as John
Gilligan, who control supply.
apologies to The Verve: the drugs don't work but the
ban on them just makes us all worse.
McDonald is Ireland Editor of The Observer. This piece
is extracted from
a speech at the Cambridge Union on Thursday in support
of the motion "This House would legalise hard
drugs". The motion was defeated by 80 votes to
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