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Debate on cannabis and other drugs

Paddy Power are now putting Luke “Ming” Flanagan as one of those likely to get a seat in Roscommon–South Leitrim, behind sitting Fine Gael TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten. When he came to prominence in the 1999 European election, he was regarded as a fringe candidate, but is now a well-liked Mayor, and since the retirement of Michael Finneran, a Fianna Fáil Minister of State, it has become ever more possible that he could be elected. He can no longer be seen as a single-issue candidate, but if he is elected, there could be a worthwhile debate on the issue.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has taken online questions annually. On each of these three occasions, a question on the continuing illegality of cannabis came on top. In 2009, he laughed at the question, asking what it said about the online audience. In 2010, he ignored the question and answered the second most popular topic, on net neutrality. This year, when confronted with a question on the subject from a former police officer, representing Law Enforcers Against Prohibition, he eventually has had to concede that it is a legitimate topic for political debate, though he waffled in his response.

There is a large element of hypocrisy in Western politics on this question. Just as it is commonly known that during the US Prohibition Era (1920–33), public figures as high as Presidents, notably Warren G. Harding (serving 1921–23) felt free to privately drink alcohol, many public figures today will happily consume drugs quite a bit stronger than cannabis in high society. It is now almost customary for those seeking to lead their country to concede having taken drugs of one sort or other during the college days, from Bill Clinton not inhaling (actually because he took cannabis in cookie form), to Barack Obama, David Cameron and Brian Cowen more recently. Though somehow I doubt that Enda Kenny is carefully drafting a response to this question on his student days.

I fail to see how the current policy is either morally justifiable or effective in its aims. Those in favour of retaining the current regime of prohibition are arguing that all consumers of illicit drugs, however infrequently, should have a permanent mark on their criminal record. In a free society, we allow people take risks that do not harm others in the process. We allow people to go mountain-climbing or paragliding, despite the possibly fatal risks. We also allow people to smoke and consume alcohol, which are more harmful in some respects than certain prohibited substances. The effects of smoking a joint, leading a group at a party to mellow out, compare favourably the effects of drink which we see in the street violence in town on Friday night after closing time.

Freedom also has the record of working. I don’t seek to diminish the serious effects of drug addiction, particularly in drugs like heroin, but in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the negative effects of drug use have decreased. They took the decision because the drug problem had got to the stage where it seemed the only sensible way to address the problem, and ten years later there is no movement from any leading political party or group to reverse the change. Glenn Greenwald, in a report for the Cato Institute, outlined the effects of their decision. For all substances, deaths from drug use have diminished, or at most remained steady. For example, deaths from heroin and other opiates stood at 281 in 20001. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006. Decriminalization hasn’t eliminated these problems, but it has made it easier to address them. This wasn’t just part of a trend, problems from drug use were increasing until they took the decision in 2001. Drug users are no longer stigmatized as criminals, making it more socially acceptable to seek help. Resources that had been devoted to prosecuting addicts could now be devoted to helping them. Drug usage rates continue to be lower in Portugal than under policy regimes with greater degrees of prohibition.

Some emphasize the economic benefits of legalization, that the transactions would be taxed, but I would see the primary benefit as the reduction in the influence of criminals and the potential for improvement in the lives of those who suffer. While a policy that has worked in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be transplanted to another, at the very least, it should be treated as a respectable subject for debate, and that either decriminalization or legalization should be be on the table.

I’ll close here with a clip on the subject from the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. I would not be in complete agreement with Friedman, but he does present a clear case against prohibition. Among other things, he proposes the hypothesis that crack, possibly the most lethal of drugs, would not have been developed had it not been for the regime of prohibition.

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