Let’s not go soft on hard drugs

IT IS clear for all to see that Ireland has a growing cocaine problem which we must face in a sensible and coherent manner. But in the process of tackling the problem, we must steer a careful path between two major mistakes that would make the situation worse.
The first mistake is that of normalising the problem by hyping its prevalence. The recent Prime Time Investigates programme grabbed the headlines with its findings that cocaine traces can be found in most pubs and nightclubs. But that is a long way from showing that most individuals take cocaine. If we create the impression that “everyone” takes cocaine when they clearly don’t, and if we communicate the idea that cocaine use is now the expected behaviour for young people, we can make the problem worse because of the powerful effect of social norm perceptions on human behaviour.
The second, and even greater, danger is to indulge in poorly thought-out policy reactions that will have the ultimate effect of making the problem worse. That’s why arguments about legalising cocaine and other drugs, must be rejected.
One of the arguments for legalisation is that state controls would put the crime lords out of business. But there is absolutely no evidence for this. Do we really believe that the gangs who have made millions, and who are prepared to kill to protect their narcotic empires, will simply walk away and retire?
At what age should children be allowed to buy legal cocaine? One study released earlier this year indicated that 40 per cent of Irish 15-year-olds have dabbled in illegal drugs. Should cocaine be legal for kids of this age? Unless we make cocaine more freely available than alcohol and tobacco, and place no age limits on it, a black market for underage cocaine will remain. In such a scenario, what’s to stop our drug lords killing each other to capture the teen coke market? And what if the cocaine magnates diversify into other banned substances, creating a new, expanded market where they won’t have to compete against the local cocaine-selling pharmacy? Do we really want expert drug pushers pursuing our teenagers in this way? What about the cost of legal cocaine? What’s to stop the criminal gangs from undercutting the price of legal cocaine?
But even if, in some alternative reality, the decriminalisation of cocaine would reduce crime, we still face a choice between two major evils and must ask ourselves which of them is the lesser: gangs wiping each other out or the prospect of even greater drug abuse and death in the rest of the population due to decriminalisation?
Legalising cocaine would inevitably increase drug consumption levels and with them, drug-related tragedies because the law plays a significant role in influencing human behaviour. Of course, it is peers that have the most intensely powerful impact on our behaviour, precisely because friends help to establish the social norms. But if this potent peer pressure has already led to a significant cocaine problem, how much greater would our problem be if the State endorsed cocaine?
Britain, in taking a softer approach to marijuana, has seen a 22 per cent increase in hospital admissions of cannabis users. The Netherlands, with its enlightened drugs policy, has seen a dramatic rise in heroin use since soft drugs were legalised. Meanwhile, Sweden, with some of the toughest drugs laws has Europe’s lowest consumption rate.
After the recent cocaine-related death of Kevin Doyle, 21, of Waterford, his family said that they “sincerely hope that no family has to suffer the pain that we are going through”. Can we really believe that a dangerous experiment with legalised cocaine would help their wish to come true?

Source: Independent i.e. Sunday December 23 2007
Patrick Kenny is a lecturer in marketing in the Dublin Institute of Technology.

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