More evidence, one might argue, that progress and compassion aren’t necessarily linear. More people died of drug-related causes last year than at any time in the history of the State, new figures cited in the Dáil show.
736 people in Ireland died last year of drug-related causes, compared to just 431 in 2004, an increase of around 75% in 15 years. By contrast, just 149 people died in road traffic accidents in 2018.
It’s worth noting that you can barely turn on your television these days without an ad about road safety, and yet it’s almost impossible to observe any major attention being given at the epidemic of drug use which is claiming lives at six times the rate of our roads.
Why is that?
There are a couple of potential reasons, none of them particularly nice.
First, road traffic deaths have very few links to social class. The wealthiest and most well-to-do amongst us have just as much risk of being hit by a drunk driver, or falling victim to speed, as any beggar on the streets. The tragic death on the road of a middle-class teenager “with his whole life in front of him” will always shock people more than the death of a 40-year-old homeless addict who threw away his life on heroin. Consequently, the roads get more attention.
Second, we’re terrified of being judgmental. It’s very easy to say that people shouldn’t speed, or drive drunk, precisely because there’s no class element to it. You’re just as likely to be denouncing the privileged as the underprivileged. But, on the other hand, if you say “don’t take drugs”, you’re accused of not understanding the desperation and deprivation of poor communities – by the very same people, of course, who haven’t lifted a finger to ease the deprivation and desperation of poor communities.
Third, there’s the very stupid argument that crackdowns on drugs don’t work, and therefore it’s better to focus on rehabilitation and care rather than driving people away from drug use in the first place. The problem with this is that if crackdowns don’t work, then rehabilitation doesn’t seem to be working very well either, looking at the numbers. Early interventions with drug users are probably better, and more cost effective, than supplying an addict with methadone for years.
A libertarian would argue that the solution is to legalise and regulate drugs, and this certainly has some merit to it. For one thing, you would improve the quality of the product, and you’d have fewer people dying from contaminated needles, or contaminated product. For another, you’d have better and clearer views of addiction and usage patterns. But it’s not a solution, is it? For one thing, drug use is inextricably linked to poverty. Unless you intend to make drugs free, drug use will still lead to poverty, and homelessness, which themselves lead to death and poor health. And if you make drugs free, well, you’ll have much more drug use.
So, what is the solution? Well, if there was one, it would have been found by now, so perhaps none exists. But one thing we don’t really do enough of is to talk about how desperately bad drug use is. We have hardly any difficulty talking openly about gambling addiction, or alcohol addiction, or speeding, or even sex addiction, in part because those are middle class vices. There’s a sense of national reluctance to denounce the evil effects of drug use, because it is seen as demonising and stigmatising the already deprived. But that’s not helping anyone, is it?
What could possibly be wrong with a television campaign featuring people who’ve been drawn into drug use and drug addiction talking about how it ruined their lives? Hell, it could be part of a rehabilitation programme for those people. If putting explicit images of ruined lungs, and implied images of floppy penises on cigarette packages works, why wouldn’t an interview with a forty-year-old man with no teeth and a very short life expectancy work when it comes to drugs?
As in so many things, this country’s approach to drug use is governed by middle class hangups. A good place to start would be to tell the truth about the impacts of drug use, and to tell it loudly.
This stuff isn’t benign. It kills, and it ruins lives. And those lives are valuable, and irreplaceable