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Victim of Hysteria?

Just over a year ago one of the weirdest chapters in recent Irish life drew to a close. Following protests, pickets, criticism and moral outrage, legislation was eventually introduced in the Dáil criminalising the so-called ‘legal highs’ sold in the infamous head Shops. One year on and the question is how successful has it been in tackling drug use? Barry Healy reports.

Fr Peter McVerry, founder of the Peter McVerry Trust, has been providing services to young homeless people in Dublin for over 25 years. In his experience the closer of the shops has “driven it underground. There is still a huge demand for these substances” which are now bought from dealers. A new trend has emerged with users gravitating toward these substances “instead of crack cocaine or in addition to crack cocaine”.

Fr McVerry is adamant the shops were open too long and should have been shut straightaway. “Head shop stuff was dynamite. It made people psychotic and the damage was far worse [than previously illegal drugs]. People were committing crimes they wouldn’t normally commit”.

The problem seems set to get worse as services battle against cuts and drug use and addiction gets pushed down the list of national priorities. Finding a solution seems a long way off.

Treatment on demand is top of Fr McVerry list, “help should be available within days at least. There are currently waiting lists of at least a month” adding “very little can be done to stop the supply of drugs but the demand can be tackled”. He is supportive of drug abuse being dealt with as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one. In this country “Alcohol causes much more damage” yet it is dealt with as a health problem, “we need to adopt the same approach with drug addiction”.

As Honorary President of Europe Against Drugs (EURAD), Grainne Kenny was a key campaigner against the head shops. Speaking to LookLeft she was keen to emphasise the successes of the closers. “100 head shops were operating at the beginning of last summer and now there are only ten”, these are confined to selling pipes, seeds and other paraphernalia.
She stresses how the “nuisance on the streets has stopped. Queues outside shops at night are gone, the same with kids queuing after school” adding “not everyone will go to dealers so in that sense it has cut out one avenue [of access]”. She also feels “not as many people are taking them [head shop substances] as it is not as socially acceptable now”.

She agrees with Fr McVerry’s assumption that the head shops should have been closed straightaway as “there is now an appetite for these substances”. She is adamant it’s a good thing the former ‘legal highs’ are now harder to get but that there is a need for educational programs to be introduced.

This issue looks set to run and run, here and elsewhere. Recently the ‘Global Commission on Drug Policy’, a group of prominent former world leaders, has said the war on drugs has failed, ‘with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world’. The report urged ‘experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens’.

In the UK the ‘Release’ campaign has been launched. It includes film director Mike Leigh, former drugs Minster Bob Ainsworth and three former chief constables in calling for the decriminalisation of possession of drugs. They believe present policy and legislation isn’t working.

Tackling the drug issue will take more than the closer of shops and enacting stiffer laws. There is no easy answer. Fresh thinking and debate is needed if we can ever hope find ways of dealing with it. It isn’t going away and it looks certain to get worse.

Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.7

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