Teenagers and young adults are more vulnerable to risky and reckless behaviour because of changes in the prefrontal cortexes of their brains. These neurological changes increase the possibility of risk-taking between childhood and adolescence, and then gradually decrease into adulthood.
These changes, along with social and cultural contexts and peer environments, mean we’re left with a demographic that is both more likely to engage in – and more exposed – to risky behaviour. When your ability to assess risk is diminished, bad decisions happen. Accidents happen.
Information on drug use in Ireland is quite poor, but there are some interesting statistics in European Drug Report 2015: Trends and Developments.
According to the paper, for example, we have the second-highest rate of both amphetamine and ecstasy use (in an adult's lifetime) in Europe. We have the fifth-highest use of cannabis in Europe, on a par with the Netherlands, famed for its liberal marijuana laws. We also have the fifth-highest European rate of drug-induced deaths. Irish under-35s are the third-highest cocaine users in Europe, next to Spain and the UK.
The highest level in Europe of so-called “legal high” use – better described as new psychoactive substances that mimic the effects of existing drugs – was among young Irish people, at 9.7 per cent.
Contrast that with the lowest user, Portugal, at 0.2 per cent. In 2001, Portugal changed drug possession laws from criminal offensives to administrative ones. Criminal penalties don't apply to personal possession, but to suppliers, sellers and traffickers. If you are caught with drugs for personal use, you are targeted for rehabilitation. If you are not an addict, or don't accept treatment or community service, you are fined.
Compare that with an average day in an Irish court, a conveyor belt of people with drug-addiction issues who are jailed in a society that thinks it is logical to imprison addicts rather than treat them.
When it comes to Irish hedonism, the “why?” is a hard question to answer. Younger generations have swapped – and combined – alcohol for and with drugs. People are always going to take drugs. You can’t stop those individual actions, but what you can at least try to end is ignorance and misinformation that leads to dangerous drugs and risky behaviour.
In November, an
committee report looked to Portugal for solutions that could be translated into an Irish context. That report strongly recommended harm-reduction and rehabilitation as a way of confronting drug use, with the possession of small amounts of drugs moving towards civil or administrative approach, rather than a criminal one.
On the issue of illegal drugs, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Minister with responsibility for our national drugs strategy, seems to speak in a different language to previous politicians. His approach, remarkably, appears to be one of common sense and of research.
How this will pan out a practical level in our legal system is another thing. But we have ignored the issue for too long. We need solutions.
Legislation and public health information around drugs has dawdled alongside developments in synthetic drugs for recreational use, not to mention the behaviour this legislation was meant to “tackle”. Polydrug use and an increasingly complex collection of chemical compounds that make up shades of the same thing are the main trends, yet the public health messaging is simple and often mute.
When people were hospitalised in Cork recently, scare stories and graphic descriptions ran in the media, and most outlets reported on the wrong drug in question. Newspapers love sensational stories that fit the cliched traps of the evils of narcotics, but that simply perpetuates fear and ignorance. We glorify alcohol and freak out about other drugs.
We know that drug use impacts disproportionately on young people and poor people – the two demographics that hold the least political capital. These are the people who have been disproportionately affected by cuts, by the recession, by emigration, communities dismantled and trodden upon even when political leaders tell us things are getting better.
These are also the two demographics hit disproportionately by mental health issues, by depression, by self-harm, by suicide, by things that are often complexly intertwined with substance use and abuse.
Most recreational drug users take drugs responsibly, but handing over the quality control of substances to criminal gangs is ludicrous. Generations of young people are more likely than ever to choose to take drugs. The laws don’t work. Criminalising drug use doesn’t work. The seizures don’t work. Copping out of educating people about drugs doesn’t work. The system of criminality that supplies these drugs unfortunately works very effectively, with a body count to match.
Sometimes tragedies are unavoidable. What is avoidable is ignorance.