Let’s face it: they’re not wrong. If ever there was going to be a time to legalise drugs, it’s now, right? We can all forget about this blasted pandemic and get high:
Drugs could be decriminalised under the current government if all parties work together to help those with addiction issues, Labour said.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labour spokesperson on education, enterprise and trade, told The Times that drug decriminalisation should not be a “political point-scoring exercise”, but should focus on helping drug users. Mr Ó Ríordáin has said the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised.
Mr Ó Ríordáin said the phrase “decriminalisation of drugs” is often interpreted as the legalisation of drugs. “The Labour Party isn’t and most people in the sphere aren’t talking about legalisation, instead a lot of people who are coming together are in an alliance for drug reform.”
He pointed to Portugal as an example Ireland could follow, where drugs were decriminalised nearly 20 years ago. Although it is no longer a criminal offence, drug possession can still be an administrative violation punishable by community service. Possession of illegal drugs with intent to supply remains a criminal offence.
The interesting thing here is the focus on decriminalisation, instead of legalisation. There is a real practical difference. With decriminalisation, what you are doing is not legal – it’s just that we’ve all agreed to look the other way and ignore it. With legalisation, you can go into your local shop and buy cannabis, because it is a legal product.
But decriminalisation is a very strange solution, when you think about it: It’s not illegal for me to possess cannabis for personal use, but it very much is illegal for somebody to sell that cannabis to me. In other words, the control of the drug remains in the hands of criminals.
Surely if the choice is between decriminalisation and legalisation, the latter is an infinitely preferable policy? If we’re concerned about health, then it’s much easier to control the quality of a legal product than an illegal one. And if we’re concerned about criminality, then what bigger blow to the drug gangs could there be than to take away one of their markets and hand the distribution of cannabis over to local corner shops?
This is an area, actually, where Ireland is remarkably out of step with its own progressive image. In the United States last week, five more states embraced full legalisation of cannabis. Decriminalisation is very much a half-way house, compared to that model.
But is it a good idea on the merits? The big criticism of the so-called “war on drugs” has been, for years, that it targets vulnerable drug users and does little to stop big gangs making millions by supplying the market. The argument for legalisation is obvious – at least to libertarians.
But the flip side of it is that legalisation – or even decriminalisation – is likely to increase the use of cannabis, or any other presently illegal drug that you relax restrictions on. And it would seem to be significantly out of character with public health policy – which is seeking to eradicate tobacco useage and fight against alcohol abuse – to make the use of other harmful recreational drugs more common.
In fact, if you compare the policy on Ireland in relation to tobacco to the proposal to decriminalise cannabis, the net effect is likely to be to make cannabis a much cheaper alternative, with no criminal sanction for using it. The sale of tobacco is subject to taxes and excise duties, leaving a packet of 20 cigarettes costing almost €15 a packet. What Labour wants to do here is to decriminalise owning a similar amount of cannabis, which would likely be much cheaper, and subject to no tax, or excise duty.
To be fair to Labour, it probably is time we had a proper debate about drug use, and our strategy, in this country. But decriminalisation just seems – to me, anyway – to be a sort of weird and cowardly half way house between our existing strategy and the legalisation approach, with the negative effects of both, and the benefits of neither.