Saturday, February 27, 2010

Legal and illegal highs

Over the last few weeks the issue of "Head Shops" has come into the public discourse. Led on by the rabble-rouser extraordinaire Joe Duffy, the hoi-poloi are up in arms about shops selling substances to the young people that they shouldn't really be consuming. The mob is so inflamed (sorry, couldn't resist) by the issue that two of the shops in Dublin have gone up in smoke. Of course this media frenzy doesn't really address this problems in this country of substance addiction and abuse.

Starting with the obvious, substances such as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth are highly addictive and highly damaging and possession is rightly a criminal offence. Criminal gangs in this country bankroll their activities through trade of class A narcotics and the international production network keeps tens of thousands of the worlds poorest in Colombia, Afghanistan and others in effective slavery. I can't really think of any valid argument that could be made to legalize their use as the downsides of increased usage would vastly outweigh any proposed benefits in regulation and taxation.

The problems occur with the more "social" drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms. All sorts of studies have been produced indicating these drugs are either harmless, are just as damaging as crack and all points in between. But the reality is that these products are being consumed and labeling thousands of teens and twenty-somethings as criminals isn't really helping anyone. The argument of gateway drugs leading to hardcore use doesn't strike me as much as the fact that as long as these drugs are illegal, you are introducing young people to a criminal element that they would be best avoiding.

The legal highs, or maybe better called non-illegal highs, from head shops are a small step in the right direction away from criminality. The big problem is that the substances are relatively untested and although a lot are clearly marked not for human consumption, everyone knows that humans are the target market. Moving to a model of controlled but legal access to recreational drugs seems to me to be the most sensible way forward. We remove a large segment of the market from criminal hands and can then regulate to ensure safe products and raise duty and tax on them.

To leave things as they are is disgraceful. We allow people to consume infinite amounts of alcohol and consider it our national pride and joy. Across the country thousands of people are unable to get though the day without a few Anadin Extra or nod off at night without sleeping tablets and yet a few puffs of a joint and you can face fines or even a stretch in Mountjoy. The drugs policy in this country needs a review and not a review carried out by the people who phone in to radio talk shows.

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