Legalising drugs: ‘Drug use should be treated as normal adult behaviour’

Irish youth workers have banded together to seek an end to drug prohibition to remove criminal risk from users

This week more than 100 Irish youth workers and former youth workers have aligned as Youth Workers Against Prohibition Ireland and signed an open letter criticising drug prohibition and arguing for the legal regulation of all drugs in Ireland.

This goes further than the decriminalisation of drug use that has been called for by many campaigners and further than the Cannabis Regulation and Control Bill being put forward by People Before Profit TD Gino Kelly later this year.

In recent years drug laws have been relaxed in several countries, including Canada, which legalised cannabis, and Portugal, which decriminalised all drug use, although no government has yet endorsed complete legal regulation of all drugs.

The signatories of this letter, including Senators Eileen Flynn and Lynn Ruane, endorse this position because they believe the illegal drug trade and the war against it cause more harm to the communities in which they work than addiction alone. They argue that if the State regulated these drugs, dangerous criminals would effectively be cut out of the market and youth workers, social workers and clinicians could focus on treating drug addiction as a social problem and an issue of public health.


Gerard Roe has been a youth worker for 15 years and is responsible for bringing Youth Workers Against Prohibition together. He explains why.

“I do hard work [with young people] from the age of 10 to 16 and then lose a sizeable portion of them to the drug trade, year after year, generation after generation. Where I work in the northeast inner city is the epicentre of the drug trade in Ireland. Young people are exposed to this outside the front door. There’s dealing on the street corners, and a lot of young people coming from broken homes or missing a parent who’s in prison or died from addiction [are] very vulnerable to being exploited by the gangs.”

Even young people who steer clear of drugs entirely find themselves frequently searched by gardaí, he says, while those who avoid other criminal behaviour often end up convicted of possession for personal use (the vast majority of drug convictions are around personal use).

“None of us have ever seen a child benefit from being criminalised,” he says. “The harms associated with drugs are very serious but I’ve come to the conclusion that what a criminal conviction does to a young person far outweighs the harms drug use is actually doing.

“Young people can go through drug use as a phase and outgrow it and go on to live normal healthy lives … But when a young person is criminalised, even brought into the system, it sets off a chain of events – a poor relationship with the guards, it makes them vulnerable to criminal gangs who want to exploit them, it cuts off their chances of employment, to travel, to get insurance, in some cases to get education. And the policy has failed to keep drugs out of the hands of young people.”

Fear and intimidation

Another signatory, Eddie D’Arcy, has been a youth worker since the early 1980s and now works in the southwest inner city. “On a daily basis I witness the devastating effect that the drug gangs have on certain communities,” he says, “the fear and the intimidation that families live under, the level of control they have within certain housing estates and flat complexes, the numbers of people who are serving prison sentences.”

In the decades he has been involved in youth work, he has seen the same cycles play out over and over. "It just really slowly dawned on me that we can't win this drug war. I was working in Clondalkin when Veronica Guerin was murdered [and I saw] all the resources that were promised and a huge effort was put in and many of the people involved were put behind bars."

But demand drives the industry, he says, and no matter how many shipments the Garda seize or drug dealers put in prison, the trade always survives. “Even enormous success in terms of seizures hasn’t radically affected the trade. It hasn’t radically affected the gangs and it hasn’t affected the level of drugs in communities.”

D’Arcy argues, in fact, that things are getting worse. The drug trade, he says, has extended into rural Ireland now, and drug debt and intimidation are also starting to affect middle-class families. He knows of many parents who have found themselves paying a child’s drug debt under the threat of violence. “It’s not a war we’re going to ever win.”

Roe observes that the drug war is also a way in which working-class communities are punished for a more widespread social issue. “We know the main funders of the illegal drug trade are the middle class, but they’re not subject to the law in the way people from poor or marginalised backgrounds are,” he says. “Who fills up the prisons? It’s 4,000 people every year, mostly there for drug convictions from disadvantaged areas, and this has gone on for decades.

“The common sense, grown-up thing to do would be to treat drug use as normal adult behaviour. People who run into problems with addiction, we need to treat that, rather than criminalising and punishing people. That just pushes people further into addiction and it just fills up our prisons. We cannot police our way out of this issue.”

Enriching gangs

The letter’s signatories support the decriminalisation of drug use but don’t believe decriminalisation alone goes far enough. They say that while it would reduce the stigma of addiction, it would also continue to enrich criminal gangs.

With decriminalisation, says D’Arcy, “the State is basically saying ‘You can smoke your weed but you have to buy it from a criminal gang. We’re going to allow you carry your heroin and go to an injecting centre but you have to buy it from a criminal gang’ … Those same criminal gangs have no hesitation about beating people up, no hesitation in shooting people, no hesitation in putting huge pressure on people to be involved in the illegal trade.

“I want the gangs taken out of the picture. And I believe that if you took the money out of it, the gangs would disappear almost overnight.”

What about the concern that regularisation would lead to an increase in the use and the availability of drugs? D'Arcy notes that in countries where drug laws have been relaxed, there is no evidence of an overall increase in drug use. He also observes that drugs are already readily available. "I lecture part time in the youth work course in Dundalk [Institute of Technology], and most of the students there would be from what would be seen as very rural backgrounds, and in their little village or rural hamlet, if anybody wants a line of coke or a few joints, nobody has any difficulty getting it at all."

They don't have all of the answers. They're not outlining what a regulated legal drug trade would look like. D'Arcy says he favours a non-profit system similar to the state-run alcohol dispensaries in Finland, but he believes there are experts who are better qualified work out these details. He is qualified, he says, to start a conversation about how prohibition has failed to reduce crime, addiction and the availability of drugs.

“I’m not in any way condoning or minimising the impact drugs have on people,” he says. “This is about trying to highlight a drug war we can’t win … I am not advocating free availability of drugs from the point of view that they’re safe. I’m doing it from the point of view that I want to remove the drug gangs and I want to have some regulation in the market. A drug gang doesn’t give a sh*t about the quality of the product or what they’re mixing it with or if there’s a bad batch … They don’t care whether they’re selling to a 12-year-old or a 19-year-old.”

Roe has some personal reasons for wanting to start this conversation. “I’m a child of parents who got caught up in the first wave of the heroin epidemic, back in the early 1990s,” he says. “So I’ve lost my parents, [and] in my work I can see the exact same thing happening to the kids I’m working with: losing parents, parents being criminalised and put in jail, them using drugs themselves and then being criminalised. It’s a never-ending cycle.

“Prohibition enables all this. It increases harm, it doesn’t reduce harm … I sincerely believe that we can manage this issue better but not under the current paradigm of prohibition. If the Misuse of Drugs Act was put in place to stop people from using drugs, it has catastrophically failed. It’s never been as bad.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times