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Drugs - reaction and realism

"Take away the drug dealers’ markets" A Controversial Suggestion For Action

(Written in January 1996).   This article was dug up by the Sunday Life newspaper during the 2001 general election to claim that one of the authors - the Ulster Third Way candidate, David Kerr - advocated the free sale of heroin over the counter.  This story was later withdrawn by the newspaper and a correction was published.  Read on to see what all the fuss was about.

Ulster Nation 12 cover.  Drugs and Crime  - How to tackle the menace!I do not like the liberal-leftist Guardianspeak phrase 'moral panic' as I often feel that there are a lot of moral issues that are worth getting concerned about. One of these is the rising rate of crime on our streets and in our neighbourhoods and how it affects our children and old folk. A major factor in the alarming growth of the crime rate in the towns and cities of Great Britain and the Irish Republic is the illicit drugs trade. Until recently this trade was stamped upon heavily here in Ulster by both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups but it has become more visible since the PIRA and CLMC cease-fires came into effect in 1994  

As paramilitary groups have always needed large amounts of money to finance their activities there has always been a temptation to dabble in the drugs trade. The IPLO was heavily involved in this and paid the price in its forcible dissolution by the Provos. Quite a few former IPLO activists are still known to be involved. On the loyalist side, the Margaret Wright murder trial showed that a Red Hand Commando unit in the Village area was deeply into the same trade. The RUC, no doubt for its own political reasons, has sought to play up a heavy paramilitary connection but hard evidence for this is non-existent. Certainly, at least in public, both the IRA and the UVF have threatened to 'deal with' drug dealers. 

The recently emerged mysterious group, 'Direct Action Against Drugs', is believed by prominent SDLP members to be a Provisional front group. This ,.group' murdered four persons in December 1995. After the murder of Martin McCrory just after Christmas a 'DAAD' statement claimed 'We done (sic) Martin McCrory last night and we are going to take them all out, whether they are supplying, financing or importing.' The New Year was scarcely a few hours old before 'DAAD' made good its threat and claimed another victim in Lurgan. 

However, the problems associated with the illicit drugs trade are still growing. The number of attacks on elderly and vulnerable folk in their homes and in the streets here is climbing. Certain pubs and clubs have gained 'reputations'. In a public park only a few hundred metres from my home a number of drug dealers now openly ply their trade each evening - ironically under the shadow of the police barrack that houses the RUC drug squad. We are still a long way off the problems of Moss Side and Harlem but there is no call for either complacency or panic. But something has to be done to prevent our children being drawn into a web of crime and self-destruction. 

What is to be done? Should we give the RUC even more powers of search and arrest? Should we put television cameras on every street corner, school gate and park bench? Should we condone the 'DAAD', IRA and RHC execution of known drug dealers? Or should we make it not worth the criminals' while to bother by taking away their lucrative market? 

I favour the latter course of action. The heavy-handed approach has not worked in either the United States or in Great Britain. The much vaunted 'war on drugs' has been a total failure despite the ever increasing amount of money and resources devoted to it by the various governments. It must also be said that the patronising 'just say no' type of anti-drugs propaganda which is aimed at our young folk is often viewed with little more than contempt. They often treat it as an example of adult 'Do as I say, not do as I do.' hypocrisy in that the 'pushers' of such literature indulge in their own recreational drugs - tobacco and alcohol. The dire warnings of the terrible consequences of drug abuse are often unrealistic and over-the-top and take no notice of the real 'buzz' which users expect to get from ecstasy or cannabis. 

We in Ulster can learn from the errors which have been made by the authorities in Great Britain. A Home Office survey published in 1993 suggested that around a quarter of young working class people in urban areas had used drugs 'recently' and half at some time. Another survey published in December 1993 indicated that 28% of a random sample of professional and managerial workers 'admitted to having taken unprescribed drugs'. Other British research suggests that there are at least 125,000 heroin addicts in the UK and as many as 250,000 regular amphetamine users. In 1993 there were over 42,000 cannabis convictions - more than twenty times the number in 1967. It is estimated that Customs and Excise officers only ever manage to seize around 10% of all illegal drugs entering the State. In Britain addicts need to raise huge sums of money to pay for their drug habits. This problem has not yet fully surfaced here in Ulster as most illegal drug use is confined to cannabis and ecstasy which - unlike heroin and cocaine- are not clinically addictive. In England a survey of 150 long-term addicts in the private Fairways Clinic showed that around a hundred had been spending £700 a week on drugs - £36,000 a year! Such an expensive habit can only be financed by criminal activity! Each one of these people had previously spent an average of four years in prison (at a cost of some £24,000 per year). This crazy policy means that ordinary citizens in Great Britain suffer in four ways:-

* Through increased taxation as the burden of dealing with the consequences of criminalisation increase. The increasing cost of policing, trials and imprisonment.

* By the increasing chance of becoming a victim of a crime carried out to finance drug abuse. (It has been estimated, for example, that 40% of all property and crime is related to addiction).

* Through the general corruption of society which results from giving organised crime the monopoly on such a lucrative trade.

* Through higher insurance premiums as a result of drug-related crime.

"Clearly the present policy deserves a rethink as the so-called 'war on drugs' has been a total failure. So far the signs have not been good. When the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Keith Hellawell called for the decriminalisation of certain drugs in June 1994 he was slapped down by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. Mr Howard told the Association of Chief Police Officers' conference that, "This government has no intention of legalising any currently banned drug. To do so would be bound to increase the human and social damage, especially that inflicted on the young. "

Similarly, the Labour Party politician Clare Short was gagged some months ago by her party leader Tony Blair for daring to suggest that the present system is not working and that there ought to be some sensible public debate on the matter.

The time has come to cut the waffle and recognise the reality of the drugs problem. Let's grasp the nettle and make both cannabis and ecstasy openly available over the counter to adults in the same manner as alcohol and tobacco. Naturally they should be taxed accordingly. 

In the case of hard drugs, it is unlikely that they could be entirely eliminated from society. The only sensible answer is to take full state control of the supply by making heroin and cocaine available free on prescription to any citizen who registers as an addict and attends counselling. Either state clinics should be set up to do this or existing groups such as the Dunlewey Centre for Substance Abuse should be given state funds to administer such a scheme. This would not be available to foreign addicts who would be deported to their homelands. 

The benefits of this change of policy would be many. Even if large numbers of addicts could not be reformed, their lives could be stabilised and their major cause of confrontation with the criminal justice system - the need to turn to crime to finance their habit - would be eliminated. The vast majority would be able to hold down jobs and lead productive lives. Ordinary citizens would be shielded from the present negative consequences of others' drug abuse but drug gangs and rogue paramilitaries would have their market taken away from them. As drug-related crime would be virtually eliminated the amount of police resources freed would be enormous. The cost of supplying maintenance doses to addicts is minimal in comparison to an ever-rising level of drug-related crime. Many professionals in the field and some senior police officers in England have rethought their views. It is time that politicians took notice and tried something different. Now is the time for the powers that be to act in Ulster - before the drug gangs manage to get their act together - and take firm and positive steps to safeguard our society and protect our young people from a life of crime and dissolution.

David Kerr assisted by Patrick Harrington

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