“This problem isn’t going way and we can’t just ignore it while people are dying and others aren’t getting the professional help they desperately need”

As the debate around Ireland’s widespread issues with drug users and their treatment continues to ensue, UCC’s SU Welfare Officer Katie Quinlan shares her thoughts on the situation, and whether or not Ireland should pursue the legalisation or the decriminalisation of drugs.

This year I continually shied away from the conversation on drug policy and reform. I suppose when people are continually spreading lies and hate about you in the form of calling you a drug dealer, you tend to want to avoid any conversation that can spark that attitude again. If I’m honest I’m slightly disappointed in myself that I allowed the actions of others stop me from being vocal on something I’m actually quite passionate about.

There is a conversation beginning here in Ireland on drug policy and reform and we have the chance to shape and mould it into a policy that treats addicts humanely and limits the casualties surrounding drug use.

Decriminalisation is the word we read about continually, but what is it? Is it really a solution? Legalisation then often enters the conversation and is usually the catalyst that shuts down dialogue. This year my wonderful friends in Trinity, UCD and DIT worked together on two campaigns around harm reduction and drug use – “What’s in the Powder?” and “What’s in the Pill?”

Neither campaign encouraged nor condoned drug use, it highlighted small harm reduction measures that could be put in place when you try these substances to limit harm. It was heavily backed by the government at the time and it appeared our narrow focus on drug use was beginning to widen.

I recently read a book called Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by a British writer Johann Hari. If you spend any time in my company you’ll know I’ve been completely engrossed by this book and I would encourage everyone to give it a read. Hari uses the book to interrogate when the War on Drugs began, why it began and whether it’s actually doing any good. Hari was once addicted to anti-narcolepsy medication and has watched family members and partners work through heroin and crack addictions.

I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of what Hari says but I want to quickly discuss some of the things I took from the book.

Hari attributes the War on Drugs to an American man called Harry Anslinger, Anslinger was the first Commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Hari documents Anslinger’s life and his incessant need to rid the world of drugs. Anslinger used America’s fear and his disgust for other races to perpetuate the idea that drugs were bad and needed to be eradicated. Along with addicts.

One of the most interesting parts of Hari’s book is his research on addiction itself. We are told that addiction happens due to the chemicals in drugs, alcohol or tobacco hijacking your brain and therefore causing you to depend on it.

After speaking to a significant amount of experts, Hari argues that this isn’t the only way to understand addiction.

We’ve all seen the early addiction experiment showing us the rat in the cage with the drug laced water bottle and the regular water bottle. The rat quickly became a drug addict which proved the idea that drugs were dangerous.

What we haven’t seen is the later experiment conducted in the 1970s by a man called Bruce Alexander. Alexander gave the rats the tools for a happy, fulfilling life instead of placing them in isolation. They had the drug water and regular water, they had toys and they had friends. Alexander calls this Rat Park, the rats here don’t like drug water. They almost never use it, they never use it compulsively and none of them overdose.

Another part of addiction Hari discusses is the trauma that predisposes addiction. A significant amount of addicts are often trying to run from something, whether its abuse, loss of a parent or childhood rejection. They are using these substances to numb a pain that they cannot escape from.

For me, this says a lot about addiction. If our solution is always a jail cell for addicts then we are only subjecting them to continued addiction and ill health.

If we are unwilling to understand these people need medical help and support, we will never come close to even relatively solving addiction.

Something else that caught my interest in the book was a statistic that stated that 10% of drugs users around the world are addicts. 90% of them use drugs to enjoy a night out, to finish an assignment or to access a part of their brain they believe they can’t while not under the influence.

Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. If you are found in possession of no more than a ten day supply of a substance in Portugal, it is seen as an administrative offence. Hari makes the journey to Portugal to meet the people who pioneered this radical move. Needle exchange programmes, substitution treatment as well as after care and social re-integration are all key parts of Portugal’s drug treatment. People found in possession are interviewed by the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. This panel is made up of three people: a social worker, a psychiatrist and an attorney. They cannot mandate treatment for addicts but their orientation is to urge them to enter and remain in treatment. They often issue fines and offer support and advice as well as harm reduction measures.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying if we implement the Portuguese model here everything will fix itself. Portugal also increased their minimum wage and redesigned their health system in direct correlation with decriminalisation. But it’s definitely something to consider and possibly build from.

Hari, who is completely in favour of decriminalisation, battles with legalisation throughout the book. His reason for this being that if we legalise these substances, are we just encouraging people to use them?

For me, legalisation is a different argument from decriminalisation. We need to begin with decriminalisation, we need to begin with treating addicts like human beings and we need to gain a deeper understanding of what has really led us to believe all drugs are bad and must be eradicated.

Drugs aren’t going away. Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol and it isn’t working for drugs. It’s making drug use much more dangerous for people and causing us to alienate a portion of the population that we just cannot afford to isolate.

This week there was calls made for the government to appoint a junior minister with the sole focus of tackling drug use in Irish society. In the General Election SSDP ran a fantastic campaign encouraging people to question candidates on their views about drug use and decriminalisation. This must continue. We must maintain the pressure.

A girl died from a pill she took on a night out in Manchester and I watched a man disregard a used syringe at a bus stop in Dublin. This problem isn’t going way and we can’t just ignore it while people are dying and others aren’t getting the professional help they desperately need.

One of the lines that sticks out most for me from Hari’s final chapter is “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

This is how we need to approach drug policy and reform in this country.

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