History shows illegal drugs are not a recent problem

Illicit substances have been in demand here for at least 350 years; no legal measures have ever made a difference, writes Fintan…

Illicit substances have been in demand here for at least 350 years; no legal measures have ever made a difference, writes Fintan O'Toole

EVERY TIME gardaí make a big drug seizure - and there have been plenty of them recently - they must have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is another victory in the "war on drugs". Good police work seems to be getting results. On the other hand, though, everyone - especially gardaí - knows that however many battles are won, the war was lost a long time ago. The reality is that the amount of seizures is largely a function of the amount of drugs being imported; that when one gang is broken, there will always be another hungrier, more vicious one ready to step into the breach; and that for all the millions spent here and the trillions spent worldwide, illegal drugs are cheaper and more ubiquitous than they have ever been.

The real issue is, of course, demand. If people want mind-altering substances, there will be big money in supplying them. We lose sight of this reality because we have a distorted narrative in our heads. The story we assume to be true is that, while Irish people always drank alcohol and took enthusiastically to tobacco, illegal drugs are essentially a recent phenomenon. They came in during and after the 1960s, along with all the other moral and social laxities of that decade. They are an outside influence, a downside to the modernity that we adopted. They cling, therefore, to the surface of Irish culture and can, with enough persistence, be scraped off.

It is weird that we should think this, because there are few western European societies in which the consumption of illegal, mind-altering substances was so open, and so socially acceptable for so long. I doubt that there are many readers who haven't drunk, or been present when others drank, the primary Irish illegal drug of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is called poteen. How odd that we forget about it, and forget, too, that 400 years of law enforcement failed to stop people making and drinking it.

Poteen became prominent in Irish society after 1661, when excise duty on Irish whiskey was re-introduced. As duty went up and the price of "parliament whiskey" rose, the native Irish responded by making their own alcohol. Originally, this was generally decent malt whiskey. But as time went on, poteen developed in a way that we are familiar with from cocaine or heroin. With a thriving, unregulated trade in which price was the key factor, poteen makers turned to whatever was available - molasses, sugar, treacle, potatoes, rhubarb. The more unscrupulous of them added bite to an adulterated product with meths or paint stripper.

The stuff became dangerous, unreliable and of often poor quality. The authorities came down heavy, sending armed soldiers against the distillers. Illegal distillers were shot, imprisoned, transported. None of it made a blind bit of difference.

Neither did the threats of the IRA in the early 1920s or the creation of a native government. The "war on poteen", as we might call it, continued in the 1930s, during which there were 500 stills detected every year by the Garda. But it was social change - emigration, relative prosperity, urbanisation - and cheaper official whiskey, that eventually killed the poteen trade. It was not law enforcement.

Poteen, it might be objected, is unusual, because it represented a displacement of an existing demand. How, then, could one explain the huge demand for another mind-altering substance: ether?

In his classic historical essay, Ether Drinking in Ulster, KH Connell disclosed the extraordinary story of the widespread and open consumption of this hallucinogenic industrial solvent, especially in the North. In the 1890s, it was estimated that 50,000 people in counties Derry and Tyrone were "etheromaniacs". The burning, unstable liquid, which turns to gas at body temperature, was not pleasant to drink (it made the uninitiated violently ill) but its effects seem to have been rather like those of LSD: "You always heard music and you'd be cocking your ears at it . . . Others would see men climbing up the walls and going through the roof . . ." Again, like today's illegal drugs, ether was widely consumed even though it harmed people's health, led to deaths by accidental overdoses, and encouraged some addicts to steal in order to supply their habit. And again, law enforcement was relatively ineffective. Ether-drinking died out largely because of social change and the availability of alternative intoxicants.

The point of this brief history lesson is simply this: there has been a demand for illegal and unapproved mind-altering substances for at least the last 350 years in Ireland. That demand has been channelled into different substances - poteen, ether, hash, LSD, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy - but there is no great evidence that it is actually higher now, as a proportion of the population, than it was a century ago.

Law enforcement (even when it was much harsher than it is now) and church sanction (even when the churches were far more powerful than they are now) had little success in combating this trade, so long as the demand made it a lucrative one. Why do we imagine that things are any different now?