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UCC Express - Drugs

I’m sure most of us are now aware of the tragedy that occurred at a house party on Pouladuff Road last week. Six young people had to be rushed to hospital after ingesting what is known as N-Bomb, a ‘head shop’ drug that mimics the effects of acid. Thankfully, five of those six young people were discharged from hospital, lucky enough to have survived their particular brush with the unquestionable consequences of the suppression of the illegal drug trade. Sadly though, one of those six was not so fortunate. I must outline at this point that I am extremely wary of appearing to use such a tragedy to make a political point. Unfortunately though, it is tragedies like this that illustrate the dire consequences of political ineptitude around the creation of sensible and evidence-based drug policy. And so while I remain acutely aware of the sensitivity of this case, lessons simply have to be learned by all of us. 

I have to admit from the outset to being absolute incredulous at the reaction of some people when news of the tragedy initially broke early in the week, people who are clearly oblivious to the realities of drug use and just how common it is. It is a stain on our collective existence, when people feel so disassociated from other human beings in their society, that their first reaction to such news is to display a total lack of empathy with somebody's son, brother, friend and neighbour when a tragedy like this occurs. What is it about someone who takes drugs, whether that be an experimental teenager, a weekend party goer, or someone crippled by addiction, that makes them, their families and their friends not only undeserving of sympathy, but deserving of ridicule? If we are truly committed to preventing the never ending cycle of tragedies, it is imperative that we learn to empathise with all drug users, stop treating opinion as fact, and engage in a fact-based discussion around drug use, while collectively recognising that current drug policy in Ireland has been nothing short of an abject failure. For some time now, casual drug users, as well as addicts, have been portrayed as vagrants and drags on society. People imagine a drug user as a dangerous criminal. We label those with addiction problems junkies, zombies, and dehumanise them to the point of invisibility. We problematise those who dabble or experiment with drugs, but the reality is that these people are our family, friends and colleagues. 

The Gardai, our law makers, and a big contingent of the population it must be said, see prohibition as the solution. Wagging your finger, tut tuting, and criminalising those who experiment, use and/or are addicted is so removed from a mature response, I find myself perplexed that seemingly intelligent people think it is the answer to a drug epidemic in a globalised and 21st century Ireland. One thing we all shared is the experience of adolescence. It is a critical time in the development of you as a person, yet quite cruelly it is also a time when you are most self conscious, open to peer pressure and crucially, adverse to the idea of danger and risk. Kids don’t take ‘head-shop’ drugs or ecstasy to be bad kids. They take them because they are curious, need to escape, feel pressured or simply want to try something new, amongst hundreds of other genuine, understandable reasons. As a result, adolescence is when the vast majority of people experiment with, use, or become addicted to drugs. You may not have taken drugs growing up, but it is highly likely someone in your immediate circle of family and friends did, even if you are unaware of it. Would you prefer that they set off on their journey of experimentation with no seat belt, airbag or knowledge of how to drive safely, pawns to the dangerous terrain of the black market? 

When I was a teenager, ecstasy was the drug of choice, and while MDMA, the base ingredient of ecstasy, is actually quite safe in smaller doses, the main risk to your health comes from the toxicity of the mixing agents. The situation today is dramatically different. Contemporary drug policy has suppressed the illegal drug trade to the point where ‘headshop’ drugs and ‘legal highs’ have become more commonplace than the more well known drugs such as MDMA, LSD, Cocaine and Cannabis. And that is the entire problem. ‘Head shop’ drugs are sold off the back of catchy names and the buzz they create or mimic. In order to evade jurisdictional laws, chemical combinations are constantly evolving. That creates a situation where from one week to the next, people are taking entirely different chemical combinations, with potentially lethal consequences. Legislatively ill equipped, drug services find themselves fighting a fire that shows no side of abating, with ‘head shops’ and online markets creating back drafts that consistently overwhelm their efforts. 

It is time to acknowledge that we have got it wrong. Legislators can make simple changes to current policy and provide safer environments for experimental users, and better health outcomes for addicts. It starts with, but is not limited to the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use, with a refocus of resources on the illegal supply chain. Adopting harm reduction policies would also almost certainly ensure tragedies like that which has struck our city this week are avoided in the future. For example, in the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, chemical testing units are provided at festivals and nightclubs. Their societies recognise that people will continue to take drugs even when prohibited, and while they don’t turn a blind eye to possession, they recognise that they have a wider responsibility and don’t allow the reality of drug use dilute their duty of care to their citizens, a pragmatic and responsible outlook. Creating a safe environment for drug users is not done with the intention of creating a party at every corner. On the contrary, sensible and realistic policy around drugs has been proven to reduce use. In the 15 years since Portugal has introduced decriminalisation, drug use amongst 15 to 24 year olds has actually dropped. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope this past week was listening to the HSE, and not the Gardai, advising people against taking ‘head shop’ products, in light of this most recent tragedy; a clear indication that drug use is moving away from being a criminal offence, to being of concern to health bodies. It is now incumbent upon legislators to follow suit, and to provide protection to all Ireland’s children, and ensure that this latest tragedy is not completely in vain.

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