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High time for a change

Instead of pretending that the present drug policy works, we should take a cool look at a system that has failed generations

“Is there any evidence that he was using drugs or had been drinking?,” the psychiatry SHO on the other end of the line asked me. I looked at the scruffy young man in front of me. There was no sign of any kind of drunkenness, but there was a faint scent of weed in the air. I doubt if he had gone a day in the last four of his 20 years without skinning up, but that was not the issue right now.

“In that case, he will have to go to the emergency department to be medically cleared,” intoned the SHO. He rang off before I could tell him the story about the hospital on the ‘busy road’. The hospital was on a fast and dangerous stretch of road, famous for crashes. Every year the emergency department, the ambulance service, the orthopaedics service were upgraded and the survivors of the crashes were afforded treatment which was second to none. Eventually some wise person asked would it not be cheaper to make the road safer.

I was reminded of this by the recent recommendation by some doctors that marijuana remains banned, as if the current system was holding back the floodgates. Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t, but it brings to mind Father Ted: “Down with this sort of thing.”

Years ago, when tenements were full and the country was full of depressed bachelors, every now and then well-meaning people would deplore that the common people were drinking too much. Oscar Wilde riposted with “work is the curse of the drinking classes” and Oliver St John Gogarty suggested that the reason men who slept on floors in crowded hovels drank, was to sleep.

Youngsters see their only chance to earn money is by working for drug dealers and crime bosses, living hectic, often short, lives

It is now 10 years since Love/Hate graced our screens and not much has changed. Youngsters see their only chance to earn money is by working for drug dealers and crime bosses, living hectic, often short, lives. If they die or are imprisoned a worse thug promptly takes their place. The courts are backlogged and the gardaí spend an inordinate amount of resources chasing marijuana. If a youngster gets a conviction, they are stuck firmly in the circumstances that led to it, without even the hope of emigration.

In my working life the profile of marijuana and those who smoked it has changed. Before the Gulf War cannabis resin was imported. Some regular smokers lost motivation and probably a few IQ points, but it was not much of a psychiatric issue. After the ill-conceived Iraq invasion cannabis herb, a mutant GM crop, high in tetrahydrocannabinol without any natural modificants, became the norm. Users became psychotic, paranoid, and disturbed.

Among the many losers in all this are those with multiple scleosis, epilepsy, and terminal cancer, who could have their lives completely changed by small doses of a herb that has been used medicinally for thousands of years.
But what would happen if we legalised cannabis in Ireland? If we followed the example of the state of Colorado cannabis production would immediately become the preserve of ‘big agriculture’.

Huge factory farms would spring up, growing the strongest possible product under lights, drenching it with noxious chemicals. The product would be similar to the noxious weed currently on the streets. The drug dealers would lose out, but few would gain, apart from agricultural corporations. Willie Nelson said that it did not matter to him if cannabis was legal or not. He smoked it when it was banned and he smoked it when it was legal. Prohibition inevitably means that quality suffers. The stuff that Willie smokes is as far removed from the joints smoked daily in small-town Ireland as a fine Champagne and a bottle of home-made poteen.

The psychiatry services are deplorably underfunded. Every day I get parents coming to me asking for a referral to child and adolescent mental health services. Very few of those children will be seen at all. The lost souls who misguidedly self-medicate are treated first as criminals and second as patients. We should, instead of pretending that the present ban works, take a cool look at a system that has failed generations. We should ask what is wrong with our way of life that so many children want to get out of their heads.

The young man went to the emergency department to be “medically cleared” as if neither I nor the SHO were not practising doctors. After a few hours he left. Nobody had ever showed him how to sit in a room quietly by himself. Nobody in all his years at school had talked about drugs and their dangers, or mental health or exercise that was not a team sport. Nobody asked why he had such a need to blot it all out and what he was running from. Blame the drug: Alcohol, coke, weed, rock’n’roll, whatever you like. It’s easier.

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