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Should Ireland follow the UK, and prosecute middle class drug users?

The other morning, if you were up at the crack of dawn, you might have heard me addressing this very question on Newstalk. Yes, was my conclusion, and you can listen back here.

Anyway, this is what prompted the discussion:

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wants chief constables to make public examples of business owners and wealthy users to change the perception that Class A drugs can be taken without consequence.

Officers have also been told to focus on cocaine use at university campuses, with raids during freshers’ week being considered to drive home the message.

A policing source told The Times: “We have been told to actively look for high-value individuals to arrest — those who see drugs as a part of their lifestyle and don’t believe that there will be any ramifications.”

Overall drug misuse is increasing. Last year 4,561 drug-related deaths were recorded, the highest tally since records began. Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, announced a publicity campaign last week to target recreational users and show the harm fuelled by their demand for drugs.

The first thing to say here is that there are obviously two views on the war on drugs. Some people think it is not worth prosecuting at all, and that the best thing to do is simply to legalise, regulate, and tax such products. My own view is that this is a reasonable argument, but unlikely to work. For one thing, legalising drugs flies directly in the face of all the public health messaging on alcohol and cigarettes. How does a Government, especially one as puritan on these matters as the Irish Government, credibly tell people to cut back on the drink and fags, at the same time as it offers them the chance to sample cocaine and heroin?

The second point is this: Politics being what it is, there’s no chance of illegal drugs being legalised and lightly regulated. You’d probably end up in a situation where they’d be made prohibitively expensive, via taxation, and only sold in licensed premises. Which is not much use to a homeless heroin addict, is it? Just as the illegally smuggled cigarette trade thrives in Ireland today, so too would the drug dealers endure, offering their product in a much simpler way, at a much lower price. The only difference would be that you could not be prosecuted for possessing illegal drugs, since who is to tell what legal, and illegal drugs are, when they’ve all been legalised?

That said, drug legalisation is a valid topic to debate. It is just not really the central point here.

The fact is, whether we like it or not, we have a war on drugs. Public policy is ordered towards the eradication of cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and even cannabis. It has consistently failed.

One of the reasons it has consistently failed is that it has not correctly engaged with people’s incentives. The incentives for the people supplying the drugs, and those using them, in other words, are completely different. Put simply, prison is not much of a deterrent for a young person from a disadvantaged area who has not other path to wealth other than selling drugs. By contrast, prison is a massive deterrent for a professional person working in the law, banking, politics, the media, accounting, or a hundred other jobs, who fancies a few lines of coke at the weekend. Yet, we threaten one of those two hypothetical individuals with prison, and leave the others to act with impunity.

What if we changed our focus?

What if, instead of putting all our eggs in the “supply” basket, we targeted the “demand” basket instead? A few Garda raids on nightclubs, arresting and prosecuting all of those people found to be in possession of illegal recreational drugs. Give them the exact same sentence that would be given to a young person caught supplying drugs. Prison. Community Service. A criminal record.

And publish their names.

You might find, quite quickly, that middle class drug use declined. And when demand declines, supply, in turn, declines.

The thing is this: When you buy a line of cocaine from a dealer, some of your money is used to buy the handguns and bullets which have devastated working class areas in Ireland over the past thirty years. Your money goes into the hands of dangerous gangland criminals, strengthening them. It is not unreasonable, to my eyes, for the state to go after you for that.

Of course, it will never happen. Ireland is a deeply class based society. Once the first young fellow from a prestigious private school faced a life-changing conviction, the cries would start about how we were all young, and made mistakes, and how this fellow is a decent young man from a good family with his whole life in front of him. It would end up being a vote loser.

And so, we’ll stay where we are, fighting an endless war on drugs, with one hand tied behind our backs, to protect that most fundamental of rights for the Irish middle classes: The right to be a hypocrite.

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