Drugs Problems - Legalis Cannabis?


A few weeks ago I took part in a panel discussion in the Short Strand. The issue of drugs arose and Billy Mitchell(PUP) spoke about the devastation caused by drugs in loyalist areas. Christy Burke gave a vivid description of the deaths heroin had wreaked on one small community in Dublin and how the community fought back.

Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey also gave no quarter, and made no distinction between hard and, what has come to be called, ‘recreation’ drugs. He said that at first you’ll be offered ‘a bit of blow’ (cannabis), then it’ll be ‘a wee E-tab’, and then it will escalate to something more lethal.

In my mid-teens my mates and I went to concerts in the Ulster Hall where Micky freely passed around joints as we played air guitars to Rory Gallagher on stage performing ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. I remember beaking off from St Mary’s School and going over to Paul’s house in Tullymore where we smoked dope as we listened to the King Crimson album. (Incidentally, Micky is now a GP and Paul is a schoolteacher. And I’m no role model.)

To smoke dope was to be anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-peace and for free-love. I don’t know where the dope came from; I doubt if it had been grown in Belfast. But I can’t recall being offered heroin or anything like that. I don’t like smoking and my expectations about the dope were disappointing, especially in the promise of free love. Besides, I found a more potent drug in alcohol.

Have you ever read the AA questionnaire? It consists of twelve questions and if you answer Yes to four or more you have a drink problem. Here are just six of them. Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple of days? Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking? Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in the hope that this would keep you from getting drunk? Has your drinking caused trouble at home? Do you ever try to get ‘extra’ drinks at a party because you do not get enough? Have you missed days off work or school because of drinking?

High score? But will we call for the prohibition of alcohol? When that was tried in the USA it spawned a black market controlled by organised crime who fought turf-wars. Hard liquor, which was easy to smuggle, took the place of the relatively less lethal beer and wine.

It is very difficult to have a rational debate on the subject of cannabis because of the amount of emotion it generates, because the general public probably makes no distinction between it and hard drugs and solvent abuse (though hypocritically choosing to omit alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and proscribed drugs from their list). I am only too aware of the damage wreaked in West Belfast by this underworld culture. Nine young people have taken their lives in drug and solvent-related suicides in the last year, including a cousin of mine.

Many who work in drug and alcohol awareness are strongly of the opinion that whilst mature adults might be able to handle cannabis recreationally, its widespread abuse by the young, including schoolchildren, is not just seriously inhibiting their education, but has led to apathy, paranoia, family problems, anger and frustration.

Dope is smoked fairly widely, but furtively, throughout West Belfast. It is also smoked with a lot of anxiety and guilt because of the Republican Movement’s anti-drugs stance. Most of the drug barons serving this market live well-outside the area and are unscrupulous low lives who trade with loyalist paramilitaries and amazingly always appear to be one step ahead of the RUC (or, in step).

If we are to tackle the damage being caused by these drug barons who are trying to produce a permanent, dependency-market through the introduction of heroin, for example, we have to look at all the options, including those which are pragmatic, even though they may be considered objectionable or distasteful.

The case for the legalisation of cannabis needs debated. In medicine its use in controlling nausea and vomiting has been of benefit to the treatment of cancer with chemotherapy where being able to eat well and maintain weight makes the difference between life and death. Multiple Sclerosis sufferers have also found that it can control the painful muscle spasms they experience. These people are not junkies in wheelchairs stoned out of their minds. They are suffering crippling and debilitating diseases but cannot use cannabis without risking arrest and prosecution.

Millions of people have smoked cannabis who have never smoked anything harder. The fact that cannabis is illegal forces the user to criminalise him or herself and come into contact with the hard-drug sub-culture in which Ecstasy and heroin may be traded. That connection might be broken - the drug pusher evaded and isolated - by tolerating supervised outlets (as in Amsterdam) where small amounts of cannabis can be sold for personal use, with the same restrictions that apply to the sale of alchohol.

What do you think?

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison