Former councillor kicks off vital

debate on drugs

Former County Councillor Sean O’Grady of Killarney expressed the concerns of, perhaps, the majority of people at the weekend by arguing that decriminalising drugs for recreational and personal use ‘is the answer to nothing’.

His letter in the Sunday Independent forms part of the skirmishing that will escalate into a full-scale battle in the coming weeks and months as this controversial issue is debated in the soon-to-be-formed Citizens’ Assembly.

Rather unfairly, I believe, Mr O’Grady has already formed the view that this latest Citizens’ Assembly is being established to rubberstamp the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use. Only time will tell if he’s right.

However, there are very few people who could reasonably argue against the urgent need for a full-blown national debate on the use of drugs for purposes other than medicinal. The Citizens’ Assembly may have its drawbacks, but clearly we need to ventilate all aspects of the drugs issue in a clear-minded way, without being distracted by too much emotive argumentation and Fr Ted-like appeals of ‘down with that sorta thing’.

For years now I’ve been struck by the growing number of drugs cases coming before our courts, about the vast amount of public money spent on suppressing the illegal drugs trade, and about the criminality, including a very high number of murders, associated to the drugs business.

Last year then Justice Minister Helen McEntee told how drugs offences nationally jumped from under 17,000 in 2017 to over 20,000 in 2021. In fact, in 2020 – the first year of the Covid plague – these offences skyrocketed to over 23,000.

It’s perfectly obvious, like in the case of Prohibition in the US in the early part of the last century, that merely outlawing a terrible social scourge is no guarantee of success. If that were the case then alcohol and tobacco wouldn’t still be causing such havoc in this country.

More and more young people are being hauled through our courts, often for possession for small quantities of drugs for personal use, or for use with friends. This escalation in the numbers of detections and offences is proof that the current criminal-justice response is, at least, in great difficulty.

Fear of being landed in front of your local District Judge is not the deterrent many hoped it would be.

Illegal drugs are now available in every village in Kerry, and throughout the entire country. That’s what needs debating. Why is this? Where is this demand coming from? And what can be done, other than the strict criminal justice response, to persuade younger people – particularly young men – to avoid recreational drug use?

We need to turn this horrible problem on its back, and then thoroughly dissect and examine. And come up with better, more efficient ways to reduce harmful use of drugs.

We cannot continue like we are, throwing vast resources and threats at the problem with the intention of closing down supply and demand at the same time. Put simply, it’s not working.

That does not mean, however, that we rush to decriminalise drug use. Before we go that far we could consider a broader, health-and-welfare-based campaign to convince users and potential users of the risks they take by using.

On decriminalisation, we need to decide if current policies are reaping the kind of benefits as to justify the cost in euros and cents. Calibrating that one is an extremely difficult task.

Sean O’Grady may be right – and he may be wrong. And the only way to decide is to talk it out. Fully.