This is my latest article for the Voice. The views expressed here are solely my own and not reflective of any group, party or campaign I have or am involved with.
Ireland is in the grip of a national frenzy. No, it’s not NAMA, or HSE, or the evil Crystal Swing: it’s “headshops” and the “legal highs” they sell.
This moral crusade has been led by a somewhat unusual alliance of community groups, independent politicians, and political parties. Granted that many of the products on sale in these outlets are probably not good for you; but it’s the hypocrisy of the manipulative and ill-informed arguments that are problematic, preventing a real discussion on the issue from taking place.
In a country with a renowned problem, or love, of drink—depending on what way you look at it—the same moralistic crusade to shut the bars, pubs and off-licenses doesn’t exist; yet the misuse of alcohol does untold damage to individuals, families, and communities, not to mention the cost to the taxpayer.
The disparity of media coverage is much to blame. Moral compasses such as Joe Duffy have whipped up hysteria they can’t control: look at the number of attacks, including arson, on headshops, which put ordinary workers at serious risk.
The protests against the shops have received more coverage than they are worth. Larger protests calling for the nationalisation of Corrib gas, for example, are frequently ignored. These people claim to be working to protect the “youth,” when their time would be better spent campaigning for social, sporting and creative centres to provide an alternative to both drugs and drink.
One of the most frequently used arguments is that the shops are providing a “gateway to drugs.” Headshops have been around for maybe five years, yet the use of drugs has been with us a lot longer than that. Many are convinced that by shutting the shops the problem will go away; in fact they will force people back to buying from dealers—the only people who’ll benefit from the closure of the shops.
As one of the few growth areas in our economy, shops are springing up throughout the country, creating jobs and contributing much-needed taxes to a very unhealthy exchequer. It wasn’t possible to track down some figures on this, but it raises the simple question: do we want the money to benefit our country by paying for public projects or continue to flood in to the criminal world?
The ever-changing ideological chameleons, the establishment parties, continue to follow the right-wing neo-liberal economic model of non-intervention and non-regulation when it suits them, or their lobbyists. What happened to leaving markets alone and the market being above all? Why can’t they take similar stringent actions against bankers, speculators, and other fiscal miscreants?
Lest we forget, these are the parties (excluding Sinn Féin) that scaremongered the passage of Lisbon 2, which enshrines the market’s needs above all, yet they pay no heed. And if “we” are all European, why not begin to liberalise laws on drugs, like other EU countries?
This façade has raised some serious issues that need to be dealt with in a calm and relaxed fashion, not the knee-jerk reactionary response we have witnessed thus far. The prohibition of drugs appears to have failed; perhaps it’s time we as a society re-evaluated the state’s position on drugs. It’s unclear at present what the answer is, but it’s apparent that many people are willing to buy and use drugs, so we should look at how we can take control of the trade, regulate it, making it safer by introducing standards and quality control—much like alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs.
The first thing on the agenda should be the regulation and licensing of “headshops,” the introduction of a minimum age for products, and curbing opening hours in line with off-licences.
The true origins of this campaign are unclear, but it may have been a clever political ruse on behalf of someone in Fianna Fáil to distract attention from their economic incompetence and pitiful attempts to run this country. If so, it’s worked.
The greatest crime of all is that parties have rushed to the streets to protest against the “headshops” yet are unwilling to do the same against NAMA and the slashing of wages, services and benefits, not to mention the quisling-like giveaway of our natural resources.
With laws on the way to outlaw many of the products sold in these shops, much of the hype and guff is simply political opportunism on a colossal scale. To curb such hypocrisy, mandatory drug testing should be introduced for the proponents of these campaigns; this might make them less excitable.
The closing of these shops and outlawing of certain substances will not tackle the overall issue and problem of drugs in our society. It’s simply the quaint Irish attitude of sweeping it under the carpet. If history can teach us anything, this will solve nothing.
Editor Notes: The article was submitted by a young person active in his community, attempting to engage with and involve young people in standing up for better facilities at the community level. He is expressing views that are shared by many thousands of young people throughout the country and raises some interesting questions that need to be discussed and debated within communities, trade unions, and political parties. We are witnessing a growth in the use and abuse of drugs, from legal ones such as alcohol, in the rise of binge drinking, to illegal ones such as heroin. State provision for the rehabilitation of drug abusers is minimal. One thing is clear: present policies are not working. If you wish to respond to the issues raised in this article, e-mail them to cpoi[at]eircom[dot]net; fifty or a hundred words (maximum).—Editor.