In the 20th and 21th centuries, the governments of the world took part in a global experiment: recreational drug use was made a criminal offence in an attempt to discourage and ultimately eradicate drug use. The Drug War has failed to eradicate drug use, with global drug use rates still increasing over the past decade despite the efforts of law enforcement. The legalisation of all drugs in Ireland is proposed in this essay for the benefit of the Irish people, the Irish economy, and the addicts in our population. Three reasons given for this radical change to the criminal law system are: legalisation of drugs constitutes an economic war on drug cartels, rational drug legislation allows for health-driven policies towards individual drugs rather than a thoughtless blanket ban, and legalisation of drugs allows greater dedication of resources to scientifically-proven treatments of drug addicts.
To attempt to assess how the drug criminalisation experiment has fared so far, we turn to Portugal’s decriminalisation of personal drug use as a comparison. People who use drugs now receive fines rather than imprisonment, which was predicted to send drug use levels sky-rocketing. While the effectiveness of decriminalization remains controversial, the most robust finding is the absence of a massive increase in drug use. There is instead evidence that decriminalisation has benefited Portuguese society through relief to the criminal justice system by allowing courts and police more time to act against more significant criminals and more room in previously over-crowded prisons. Drug use levels have not sky-rocketed, but neither have they fallen, meaning that organised crime cartels still thrive in the black market. This situation is mirrored in all countries that criminalise the production and sale of drugs because this niche of the market is kept permanently open by law enforcement, with Ireland being no exception The ultimate method to combat this is through monopolistic competition, where a large organisation takes control of a market and drives down the prices, to force other competitors to close their operations. As long as the illegal sale of drugs is profitable, drug-dealing gangs will form to fill the gap. However, if government-sanctioned businesses simply made it unprofitable to sell drugs illegally, organised drug crime wouldn’t just be undesirable or risky as in the criminalisation model, it would be economically impossible. In one fell sweep, legalisation would deliver a hammer-blow to the problem of gangs in Ireland.
The existence of social problems relating to drug use in Irish communities is well-known, however using the phrase “drugs” as a generic catch-all is profoundly unscientific. Recreational drugs vary wildly in their effects, with some drugs being addictive and toxic, and others relatively safe. Professor Nutt, former chairman of the English Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), famously noted that in terms of harm to individuals and economic costs to society, “There is not much difference between horse riding and ecstasy”. MDMA has been found to have powerful therapeutic effects on the treatment of post-traumatic stress in trauma victims, for example, and legislation specific to this drug could be developed similarly to that regarding alcohol with licensed premises responsible for the safety of the consumers and for regulation of their intake. This could be done with many of the other drugs that are not damaging to the body in controlled doses, and the type of licence for each could be specific to its effects; inspiration sessions on LSD guided by psychiatrists, death-acceptance therapy provided for the terminally ill. These ideas are in the process of developing bodies of scientific support (legal limitations have only begun being lifted in the past decade to allow research), and furthermore these ideas economically viable for privately owned businesses that can be taxed and regulated by the government. This model for the less dangerous drugs would stand in stark contrast to that for the highly addictive and toxic drugs, e.g. the painkiller, heroin. According to The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, countries that allow pharmacies to give heroin or its substitutes to addicts see a massive reduction in overdose rates. While not solving the problem, in the short term it is preferable to have medical professionals overseeing the use of this dangerous drug in comparison to forcing addicts in withdrawal to buy from dealers with dangerous chemicals and used needles. It is only through legalisation that such careful regulations can be implemented, as has been done for the almost identical drugs morphine and oxycodone. It is a travesty that such scientifically-influenced methods of legislating are not already in use for every recreational drug.
Effective treatments for drug addiction exist, however the criminal model of addiction treatment has not prevented drug use and addiction. Behavioural genetics consistently finds that 30-60% of variation in people’s abuse of drugs is due to genetic influences, the rest of the variation being down to environmental influence, particularly that of peers. Forcing addicts to live with violent criminals and other addicts without intensive medical care is a strategy doomed to failure. Addiction can be treated by building communities of recovering addicts assisted by mental health professionals, which has been found to have powerful effects on preventing relapse. Rather than spending government money on treating addicts in the same way that we treat psychopaths and murderers, psychology is now showing that addiction should be treated as self-medication for mental illness. Government money would be better spent on voluntary, effective rehabilitation.
In conclusion, legalisation all drugs does not mean drug-crazed anarchy. Legalising all drugs means beginning the economic war on organised crime. It means scientific drug laws that put appropriate limits on who uses drugs and when. It means acknowledging the mental health crisis that is currently being treated by drug dealers and prisons, and instead using mental health professionals to develop real, rehabilitating communities. This would be for the benefit of all Irish people.