The gunslingers of RAAD were in action again at the weekend, opening fire on residents of the Creggan estate in Derry.
It should be explained to readers puzzled that they hadn’t heard of this outbreak of violence that RAAD stands for Republican Action Against Drugs and the phrase ‘against drugs’ confers a certain legitimacy.
Had it been an illegitimate outfit like the Real IRA which unleashed volleys of shots in a built-up area there would have been uproar. MLAs would have been tripping over one another for access to the microphones.
But, insofar as mainstream politicians intervene in debate about drugs, it is to crank up the hysteria on which RAAD and similar gangs depend.
The level of sheer ignorance informing public discussion of drugs was evident in a Radio Foyle interview with Jim Wells a couple of weeks back, in which the DUP man declared that those who argue for decriminalisation of drugs would change their tune if they looked at the disastrous experience of countries where this had already happened. This is the exact opposite of the truth.
Examination of the effect of decriminalisation shows that any negative consequences — and they are few — are hugely outweighed by the benefits.
Portugal opted for full-on decriminalisation nine years ago. Dealing and trafficking remain crimes, but personal possession, or use, of drugs from cannabis to cocaine to heroin, no longer comes within the policing or justice systems, but within the remit of health and education.
The results of a comprehensive analysis of the first five years of this regime were published in the journal Scientific American last year:
“The number of deaths from street-drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006.”
Portuguese health officials say that the move has had no serious negative effects but, on the contrary, has gone a long way towards addressing problems of drug use, prison overcrowding and poor public health. It has not led to an increase in drug addiction.
The journal also concluded that decriminalisation has not — as many of the Wellsian tendency had predicted — made Portugal a magnet for drug-seeking tourists.
The April 2009 issue of the journal which carried the results of the study is readily available on the web.
Perhaps Mr Wells will look it up? Probably not. Neither Jim Wells nor RAAD are likely to let the facts stand in the way of lazy ignorance and crude prejudice. While RAAD was skulking the Creggan looking for unarmed teenagers to terrorise, Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee, was telling The Observer that he has concluded on the basis of experience that the possession of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised.
He added that a debate was needed about the inclusion of alcohol and nicotine — which between them kill more than 120,000 people-a-year in the UK — in any strategy for dealing with dangerous substances.
“My personal belief, in terms of sheer scale of harm, is that one of the most dangerous drugs in this country is alcohol,” he said.
Last week, too, the man who pioneered early research into the effects of cannabis, Professor Roger Pertwee of the University of Aberdeen, repeated his view that putting cannabis on a par with alcohol as far as the law is concerned would reduce both drug-related crime and the chances of young people being introduced to harder narcotics.
Moreover, all evidence suggests that when you criminalise a drug for which there is a large, profitable market, you don’t eliminate the market or the drug, but merely ensure that the trade will be in the hands of criminal gangs, which will try to protect their profits by any means necessary.
Drawing the apt parallel with prohibition in the US, the Independent’s Johann Hari observed a few weeks ago: “Nobody (nowadays) kills to sell you a glass of Jack Daniels . . . And, after legalisation, nobody would do it to sell you a spliff or a gram of cocaine either.
“They would be in the hands of unarmed, regulated, legal businesses, paying taxes to the state. How many people have to die before we finally make a sober assessment of reality and take the drugs trade back from murderous criminal gangs?”
The chances of plain, evidence-based commonsense like this being accepted by Jim Wells, or RAAD, are as slim as a Rizla.
By Eamonn McCann