Una Mullally: The drugs might not work, but neither do the laws

Nobody – aside from criminals – benefits from drug prohibition

Irish current affairs sometime feel like a sitcom. So you could almost hear the canned laughter when a judge recently ruled part of our drug laws unconstitutional, thus temporarily legalising various drugs criminalised since the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act. God forbid, though, that we take this opportunity to have a mature and open conversation about drug use and prohibition. That moment passed amid much confusion.

“Joined up thinking” has become a meaningless phrase, but the Government does tend to play Jenga with legislation involving social issues, shoving a block into place and exclaiming “It fits!” while ignoring the collapse of the entire structure.

For drug legislation, this patchwork is based on prohibition. A new drug arrives on our shores (ecstasy, crystal meth, khat, mephedrone) and the reaction is always to ban it. When stories about the head shops hit the papers and talk radio, politicians scrambled, hysteria mounted, and the result was the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act of 2010.

The first generation of head shop drugs were magic mushrooms, banned in February 2006. At the time, shops were selling them via another loophole which made their sale and possession legal as long as they weren’t “processed” or dried. You can’t stop people walking around the damp grass of golf courses and mountainsides and forests in autumn filling a bag, but they’re illegal anyway. Drug laws have never been about addressing a practical reality.


The new school of head shop drugs, pumped out from factories in China, was different. This was bargain-basement stuff. Mephedrone and its derivatives have always been seen as poor man's MDMA (the active ingredient in Ecstasy), but, in fact, the chemical make-up and effects of mephedrone are more like speed.

In the UK between 2008 and 2010, ecstasy seizures flatlined. Sure, the police were still confiscating pills, but they didn't contain MDMA. Drug dealers across Europe benefited from the "passing off" of pills as Ecstasy when they contained cheaper chemicals.

The popularity of head shops also coincided with a fall in cocaine use. The economy was slipping, and as Robin Williams once told us, "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you are making too much money". When the shops closed, the illegal drug trade picked up the slack, with leftover mephedrone peddled, and a resurgence in the popularity of cheap and relatively safe Ecstasy.

Ecstasy’s reborn popularity has not been without tragic consequences, namely “pills” being again passed off as containing MDMA. They’re actually made with PMA,which acts more slowly than MDMA, leading users to take more in the belief that they are imbibing weak Ecstasy. This has caused deaths North and South of the Border.

Dishonest handwringing

The handwringing and pontificating about drugs is clearly dishonest, as we seem not to think alcohol or tobacco warrant prohibition, though their impact on health is far more troubling.

Dishonest, too, is our lack of care for heroin addicts. There are fewer than 40 detox beds for a population of more than 20,000 opiate users, so there’s no public health urgency to do anything but condemn people to addiction. Substance abuse is also intertwined with Ireland’s mental health crisis, which is intertwined with our crisis of homelessness and our crisis of suicide.

As Blind Boy from the Rubberbandits said in an interview on Newstalk just last week: “It’s hard to have a rational mental health conversation when the drug laws are irrational.”

And then there’s crime. The illegal drugs industry, of course, is controlled by criminals, but the illegality of drugs does not solve this problem: it causes it.

The drugs issue is hard, perhaps too hard. How can you untangle decades of ignorant legislation, hysterical public opinion and misplaced social norms?

Tackling manufacturing is a massive roadblock. Even if possession were legalised, and trade regulated and taxed, the drugs would still have to come from somewhere. These are generally grim somewheres, populated by dodgy makeshift factories and involving gangsters roaming around South American jungles, drug mules threatened into transportation, Mexican gangs beheading one another, or the flush Irish mafia cutting deals on the Costa del Sol.

The false threat

The proceeds from that manufacturing and subsequent supply feed endless facets of crime, from human trafficking to illegal arms trading. It’s so hard to comprehend untangling that it is much easier to pretend that drug use, rather than the drugs industry, is somehow such a threat to society that we must criminalise it to the point of no return.

Yet nobody – aside from criminals – benefits from drug prohibition. And no one who uses drugs recreationally or otherwise pays one bit of heed to drug laws. They are astonishingly ineffective.

Last week’s rushed legislation was another fruitless exercise in banning things that anyone who wants can get if they are prepared to look hard enough. The drugs might not work, but neither do the laws.