Shattering the Drugs Consensus


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a1_irishwarondrugs.jpgProhibition of drugs has not only failed in its own terms – it has actually been counterproductive, criminalising large sections of disadvantaged communities while making it more difficult to successfully implement harm reduction measures. At the same time, prohibition ensures continued revenues for the criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade. These are just some of the conclusions in Dr. Paul O’Mahony’s latest book, The Irish War on Drugs: the Seductive Folly of Prohibition (Manchester University Press, paperback €22.99).

While it is difficult to argue with many of O’Mahony’s conclusions, the philosophical (as opposed to the empirical) route by which he reaches them is rather more problematic. It is unsurprising that one of the few reviews of the book in the mainstream Irish media to date – in the Cork Examiner – focussed on his assertion that the use of drugs is a human right, and that prohibition runs counter to principles of privacy and bodily integrity. That libertarian argument – one with which this reviewer disagrees – is unlikely to find much resonance in drug-plagued communities, and merely serves to divert attention from the practical arguments which O’Mahony advances in favour of legalisation. Any attempt to make the political argument for a more effective drugs policy will have to eschew libertarianism in favour of the utilitarian argument that decriminalisation offers – to paraphrase O’Mahony – by far the best prospect for reducing the net amount of harm associated with drugs.

At present, what O’Mahony terms ‘supporters of utility-based decriminalisation’ are few and far between in the Irish political landscape. O’Mahony provides them with a number of empirical arguments with which to bolster their case.

While O’Mahony pays tribute to the harm reduction approach adopted in the wake of the 1996/7 Rabbitte Reports, he also highlights the intrinsic tension between the ‘cops’ and ‘docs’ approaches. It is worth citing him at some length:

“A world that […] abolishes prohibition is surely something like the Promised Land for harm reductionists, for it is a world in which there are no prohibitionist barriers to harm reduction endeavours or to primary prevention, education and treatment. A world without prohibition is the only world where harm minimisation of drug use can truly be counted as primarily a public health problem. In this world everyone, including former prohibitionists, could unite in search of the most effective ways to minimise harm – other than relying on the criminal law and interdiction. So, for example, the current situation whereby many deaths result from the use of drugs of unknown purity and uncertain content could be transformed by the introduction of strict, thorough and ubiquitous quality control of drugs – and approach which is currently made impossible by prohibition.”

Turning to crime, O’Mahony distinguishes between ‘inherent’ drug-related crime (i.e. drug possession) and other forms of crime associated with the need to acquire drugs (‘economic-compulsive’ crime) and with the control of markets, transactions, debt collection and supply and distribution networks (‘systemic’ crime); in this, O’Mahony relies heavily on the so-called Goldstein model. Crucially, in analysing the drugs-crime nexus, O’Mahony recognises that social disadvantage may predispose both to drug use (and, indeed, use of other substances such as alcohol and tobacco) and to criminal activity – and that distinguishing between cause and effect may thus be problematic (does drug use predate criminal activity or vice versa?).

Nevertheless, the conclusions he reaches regarding the probable effects of legalisation on crime levels – and, in particular, on the current ‘gangland culture’ – are incontrovertible:

“[…] the relatively recent growth of an American ghetto-style gang culture among young criminals and the associated devaluation of human life are part of a climate, new to Ireland, which has coevolved with the criminal drug trade over the last 25 years. There is an intimate symbiosis between drug trading and violence, now frequently exemplified by the phenomenon of guns being imported alongside drug consignments as an integral part of the deal. As the profits of drug dealing have increased, so have the attendant risks and so has the tendency to resort to extreme violence in order to evade detection, protect gains and maintain control over markets. […] However difficult it might be, the abolition of prohibition probably offers the only realistic prospect of finally defeating the gangs by eroding their financial and power basis, which has been created by and still depends on prohibition.”

Moving from crime to health, O’Mahony illustrates the manner in which prohibition and its manifestations conspire to defeat harm reduction measures – and, politically, this may be the terrain on which to fight the decriminalisation battle. It is the communities most devastated by drugs which have fought hardest for a wide range of treatment facilities, ranging from methadone maintenance programmes to detox and counselling services, and which (although initially predisposed to prohibitionism) may eventually be most amenable to arguments such as the one below, in which, pointing out that over 90% of opiate-related deaths examined in one study took place in the officially-designated Local Taskforce Areas, O’Mahony notes that:

“A prohibitionist, law enforcement-focussed approach means that a thick pall of ignorance hangs over the very communities where susceptible young people enthusiastically and unhibitedly embrace the most dangerous forms of drug use. In disaffected, socially excluded communities […] young people fall prey to drugs with hardly a thought given to health risks and with no appreciation whatsoever of the predictable social, economic and psychological effects for the individual of growing tolerance to heroin and eventual compulsive opiate addiction. Prohibition breeds secrecy, anti-authoritarian attitudes, and a climate of ignorance, fatalism and recklessness, which in its turn greatly increases the risks and actual harms of drugs”.

Pointing out that prohibition can actually encourage progression from less harmful to more harmful forms of drugs use, O’Mahony argues that:

“It is clear that prohibition places cannabis, ecstasy and other ‘soft’ drug users in a criminal ambience and within the orbit of influence of the criminal drugs trade. […] Certainly, the Dutch experiment with the decriminalisation of cannabis, which attempts to reverse this situation, appears to have successfully separated much of the cannabis market from the criminal black market in other drugs and thereby, while keeping cannabis use at a relatively low level, reduced the number of cannabis users progressing to heroin use”.

Such arguments – together with the quality-control argument (“the regulation and quality control of ‘hard’ drugs is totally impossible without an effective process of decriminalisation, which succeeds in wresting the drugs trade out of criminal hands and fully regulating it”) – will find an unwilling echo among community drugs activists in some of our most disadvantaged urban (and, increasingly, exurban) areas.

Unfortunately, as the recession starts to bite these communities are likely to be victims of a double blow: funding for drug treatment and other resources is likely to be cut back at precisely the time when demand for those services increases. The task facing progressives, therefore, is to argue against such cuts in the short term while – in the longer term – making the case for a sustainable policy on drugs.

Ultimately, such a sustainable policy may well involve some forms of decriminalisation. However, as O’Mahony argues, a full legalisation approach would only be effective at an international level – and we are a long way from that, either internationally or nationally. Although, as he pointed out in a recent interview with Dr. Carol Coulter, a ‘lot of people are arguing against prohibition’, those arguments have so far failed to penetrate either the Government or the Opposition wings of Leinster House. Those who believe that prohibition has failed must construct a workable alternative, possibly combining de-criminalisation of cannabis along Dutch lines with medicalisation of heroin (i.e. a form of state provision where registered heroin users would be prescribed heroin for consumption in designated ‘safe rooms’). Even such a hybrid solution, however, will prove difficult to sell in the face of an overwhelming and absolutist political and media consensus in favour of prohibition.

This consensus was most recently typified in a Sunday Times article on O’Mahony’s book. Headed It’s Dopey to Mess With Drugs, the piece stated that:

“In the face of this liberal onslaught against criminal law, it is worth reminding ourselves that there is nothing wrong with society deeming certain activities to be inherent vices and to punish them as such. Most drug addicts have decided to refuse to engage in society, and to sponge off the rest of us instead. What O’Mahony bemoans as “condemnatory, repressive and punitive attitudes” are the only attitudes that these addicts are capable of understanding and are labels we should all be proud to wear”.

The task facing progressives (or, at least, those who agree that prohibition has failed) is to break down that consensus piece by reluctant piece. Thanks to Paul O’Mahony’s book, we now have the empirical tools with which to conduct that ‘liberal onslaught against criminal law’ – or, rather, a liberal onslaught against the conservative consensus on drugs.

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