Legalising Drugs Would Be Like Committing Social Suicide

People in this country are so appalled by the ever-rising crime rate — homicides up again by 25pc this year — that there are ever more voices calling for the legalisation of recreational drugs. If only to remove the drugs trade from the criminal gangs.

I have some experience of living in a society where recreational drugs were legalised. This was in London in the 1960s.

Until 1967, there was a medicalised legal system in place in Britain whereby heroin addicts could access their daily dose of the opiate under the British National Health Service. In Bloomsbury, where I lived as a young reporter, there was a young heroin addict among our circle of friends who I knew quite well.

This was the system. The heroin-user went to a doctor or NHS clinic and was duly put on a register for addicts.

By virtue of being registered drug dependent, he could collect his prescription for legal heroin at a number of pharmacy outlets.

So our heroin-addict friend would sometimes crash out on the floor of the Bloomsbury flat I shared with my friend Miriam, and take the number 19 bus down to Piccadilly Circus at midnight so as to pick up his heroin script for the next day. Boots the chemist at Piccadilly opened 24 hours, and as midnight signalled a new day, the next script could then be collected.

This was all part of a British attempt at compromise in the area of problem addiction.

Opiate addiction as a notifiable problem appeared on the social radar in the 1950s. It often started with wounded servicemen who, in the Second World War, had been given morphine to still the pain they endured in battle.

Then it spread a little more among the music set — jazz performers had notoriously used it since the 1930s. The trumpet player Chet Baker, who died in 1988 — a once-beautiful young man, ravaged by legally obtained heroin — was typical.

Because drugs were still a minor problem, the British system of medicalisation was thought humane.

And up to the early 1960s, this legalised system worked reasonably well.

But little by little, the demand increased; and little by little more doctors were induced to prescribe ever more generously.

Between 1961 and 1968, the number of heroin addicts registered in the UK rose from about 50 a year to 1,000 a year — then 2,000, then 5,000, then 10,000, then 60,000.

“Legal” heroin was leaking into the black market; it became impossible to control the system as addicts sold on surplus amounts.

Where there is a supply, word gets about. London began to attract heroin “tourists”. Those who could not easily procure these drugs in their own country came to England.

By 1968, the British government decided that legalised heroin had become a racket, and withdrew the facility.

No, it didn’t stop the illegal supply; and by the 1980s, when huge amounts of Iranian heroin were released on to western markets (after the fall of the Shah of Iran, refugees took it out in their suitcases) it was by then in the hands of organised criminals, where it has remained ever since.

So, why not debate the possibility of legalising the whole spectrum of recreational drugs used in Ireland today — from cannabis to heroin, from ecstasy to cocaine?

By all means debate it. Debate is one of the best ways of testing an idea. But don’t be naive in this debate. Look back on the experiences of those societies which have provided access to legal drug use.

When the British sold opium to the Chinese, for example, China regarded the experience as the utter degradation of their nation, reducing intelligent individuals to pathetic scraps of humanity in opium dens.

When Britain itself tried to operate their medicalised system, the biggest problem was that it eventually attracted so many drug tourists.

The Dutch had exactly the same experience with their liberalisation of cannabis.

Every dope-head in Europe made for Amsterdam and the cannabis cafes.

The Netherlands has since tightened the regulations — though that hasn’t stopped the Dutch skunk growers exporting their expertise to all and sundry.

There may be a case for legalising — or medicalising — drug use. But there is one overwhelming argument against it: unless legalisation could be done in conjunction with other neighbouring European countries, Ireland would simply become a beacon for drug tourists from all over the world. To go it alone would be social and collective cultural suicide.

Attracting more drug-users from all over Europe would also mean attracting more, not fewer, drug criminals.

Sometimes problems have no easy solutions. Sometimes you just have to muddle through and keep doing your best.

Oh, as to our heroin friend — Tony, he was called — who used to queue for his medicalised fix every midnight, what happened to him?

When they changed the law, he decided to chuck in wasting his life on drug use and got clean.

But the real trigger for change was that he became a father and wanted to survive for his child’s sake. It does happen: redemption.