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Why We Should Legalise Hard Drugs

Henry McDonald • Feb. 23, 2003

I was having lunch last week with a senior member of the Garda Siochana or Irish police in Dublin. He is a man with 32 years of service fighting crime in the Irish capital. Throughout his career he has witnessed three major drug waves in the Irish Republic - the first heroin epidemic of 1980; the explosion of ecstasy and cocaine use in the mid 1990s and now the introduction of crack cocaine at the start of the 21st century. He is a superintendent with some major successes under his belt including the operation against John Gilligan, the drugs baron who ordered the murder of my colleague, the reporter Veronica Guerin. He has seen millions of pounds of euros in drugs seizures. But the officer was highly modest about the scale of his achievements in the fight against drugs.

In his most candid moment of the afternoon he came across with a startling statistic - the police only seize about ten per cent of the drugs that come into the state at any time. When you press him about the success of the war on drugs he is dismissive. This is a war, he states, that cannot be won.

The drug sub-culture still fills me in equal parts with disgust and ennui, but there seems to no logic to prolonging what is arguably the most futile conflict in human history: this so-called war against drugs. This war, equivalent to fighting a thousand Vietnams at once, can never be won. Even the United States, with its superpower monopoly and infinite military resources, has failed to stem the narcotics flood. Dictatorships, whether of the Islamic fundamentalist variety as in Saudi Arabia or the Leninist-capitalist model in China, have employed brutal methods to suppress drugs, respectively beheading or blowing the brains out of alleged dealers. The latter means of dispatching drug peddlers is also used by the IRA on the streets of Belfast, Derry and even Dublin.

But neither the Saudi and Chinese cliques nor the IRA can put an end to the production or consumption of drugs. That is because since the time of the ancient Greeks - and quite possibly even before - the iron laws of economics have operated: a permanent demand creates an inevitable supply. Dealers are prepared to continue risking their lives on the streets of Belfast, Beijing and Riyadh to meet that demand.

Prohibition, as the Americans found with alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s, is counter-productive and only gives rise to a vast criminal sub-culture. The monopolisation of supply in criminals' hands hikes up the price of drugs to the point where consumers can only feed their habit through larceny or prostitution, thus further fuelling crime.

Then there is the enormous and totally unnecessary cost to the state of prosecuting those individuals who choose freely to take drugs as a means of entertainment or escapism. The Economist magazine has estimated that between 1996 and 2000 the British taxpayer paid out £36 million to lock up people who were tested positive for cannabis. The figures for jailing those consuming hard drugs are reckoned to be even higher.

Then there is the one drug which is widely available, legal and socially acceptable. Families are ripped apart and lives shattered through the fermentation, advertising and distribution of the most popular legal drug in the free world - alcohol. How many young men for instance will end up in the casualty wings of Irish and British hospitals this weekend due to obscene bouts of boozing? What are the odds of someone getting mowed down on an Irish or British road by a drunken driver?

Despite this we persist in glamorising drink while demonising drugs. In Ireland more people are killed by drink and cars than drugs. These are indisputable facts yet we never hear calls for the prohibition of alcohol or driving. Nor does society ban dangerous sports such as hang-gliding, air boarding, bungee jumping and so on. These activities are taken up by individuals exercising personal freedom and choice. The state does not intervene in these choices.

Opponents of legalisation claim that drug takers are not free individuals. This is because the moment they consume a drug, any drug, their minds are altered and thus their ability to act as free thinking individuals. But if you apply this logic consistently then what about the moment that someone takes a sup of his first pint, then his second, third, fourth and so on? That individual's mind is also being altered by chemicals. Are our opponents seriously suggesting that we should therefore ban alcohol because it stops us from being rational individuals the moment we put pint or glass to our lips? I think not.

Legalisation of course contains inherent dangers. The sale of narcotics should be regulated but definitely not controlled by the state. The prospect of the state selling drugs to consumers brings to mind Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where the regime kept the masses docile by doling out Soma. Nor should legalisation imply hedonistic license. The minimum age should range from between 16 for soft drugs and 18 for harder substances; those who sell to children must suffer the maximum penalties.

There are pitfalls over price fixing. An exorbitantly taxed product will result in what has already happened with tobacco in Ireland, where the paramilitaries have flooded the market with cheaper illegal foreign cigarettes. Tax revenue from drugs should be funnelled into drug treatment programmes and preventative education aimed at de-mystifying drugs.

None of this is to suggest a solution to the drugs problem because there is no solution, only the pragmatic management of it. A reasonable tax on narcotics can help fund education programmes aimed at reducing demand for drugs. Furthermore, decriminalisation would wipe out far more effectively than the Criminal Assets Bureau the profits earned by loathsome beings, such as John Gilligan, who control supply.

With apologies to The Verve: the drugs don't work but the ban on them just makes us all worse.


Henry McDonald is Ireland Editor of The Observer. This piece is extracted from
a speech at the Cambridge Union on Thursday in support of the motion "This House would legalise hard drugs". The motion was defeated by 80 votes to 44.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

6 March 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Disobedient Republicanism
Anthony McIntyre


Interview With Bernadette McAliskey
Breandán Morley


Why We Should Legalise Hard Drugs
Henry McDonald


Day X & Beyond

Davy Carlin



Brian Mór


27 February 2003


Blair in Belfast
Sean Smyth


Bernadette Devlin McAliskey Deported from USA
Tommy McKearney


Sinn Fein's Helpful Hints for Upholding Harmony
Eamon Lynch


Jomo Kenyata in the Mau Mau - Never

John Nixon


What Practical Alternatives To Provo Republicanism exist?

Seaghán Ó Dubhslaine


Caoimhe Butterly
Anthony McIntyre


'The Left Isn't Listening' - Really Mr Cohen?

Paul de Rooij


Israel's Proxy War?

M. Shahid Alam


Jack Holland And The Obsolescence Of Republican Socialism
Liam O Ruairc




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