We need a U-turn in drug policy, from prison to treatment

Opinion: ‘You can’t see 3,500 crimes not being committed so it is difficult to persuade politicians that treatment is value for money’

‘Every drug user I have worked with has come to a point in their life when they wanted to give up drugs. There is then a small window of opportunity to help them. However, if treatment is not available, or if they have to go on long waiting lists, then the window of opportunity may close.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Every drug user I have worked with has come to a point in their life when they wanted to give up drugs. There is then a small window of opportunity to help them. However, if treatment is not available, or if they have to go on long waiting lists, then the window of opportunity may close.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 12:01

In 1998, a Japanese soldier was found hiding in the jungle. He had not realised that the second World War was over. For 43 years he had been trying to avoid capture so he could continue the fight. His predicament was so weird that every news media in the world covered the story.

However, no less weird is the war against drugs. The war has been over for 20 years and we have lost. But we continue to fight in the belief that the war still goes on and can yet be won.

Over the past 20 years, we have spent billions of euro in trying to eradicate illegal drugs, we have enacted tougher and tougher legislation, imprisoned tens of thousands of drug users. And the result? We have an increasing supply of an ever-expanding range of drugs to an increasing number of users in more and more cities and towns – and even villages – in Ireland. There is now, in many parts of this country, a free market in drugs. We sometimes call them “controlled drugs”, when the reality is quite patently the very opposite.

Illegal drugs are, unfortunately, here to stay, despite the best efforts of the Garda Síochána and Customs. Ireland is an open country, with porous borders. As long as you can buy a kilo of cocaine in South America for €700, and sell it in Ireland for €70,000, there will always be people willing to risk being caught. There are five people waiting to take the place of every drug dealer who gets locked up. New synthetic drugs are also readily available over the internet.

Today, drugs, like alcohol, are a part of the world in which most young people grow up. They will be offered drugs, most will experiment with them, and a few will become addicted. Just as parents discuss alcohol with their children as they grow up, now they also have to discuss drugs. Unfortunately, most parents know less about drugs than their children.

The current policy in relation to drug use is to deter people by criminalising the drug user. I recently attended court with a young man who had been charged with possession of cannabis to the value of €2. The case was remanded on four occasions. On each occasion, the prosecuting Garda spent the whole morning in court, a solicitor was appointed under Free Legal Aid, a probation report on the young man was requested. A total waste of time and public money. It was not his first prosecution for possession of cannabis, nor will it be his last.

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