Let's talk about drugs, and the truth about them
A study of drug-related deaths in Scotland in the 1990s revealed that every single death where ecstasy was identified as cause, or partial cause, was reported in the media. A number of these deaths were splashed on front pages.
Deaths related to other drugs were much less likely to make the news. Only one-in-three of deaths related to use of amphetamine was covered at all. One-in-50 diazepam-related deaths was deemed worthy of ink.
Deaths from ecstasy were significantly lower than deaths from heroin, morphine, methadone, or cocaine, while alcohol and tobacco-related deaths were so common that not only were they unlikely to be reported, the fact that they were drug-related tended not to register at all.
Across the UK as a whole, the numbers of deaths recorded in autopsy reports as having been associated with ecstasy were, year by year from 2007 to 2011: 10, 12, two, four, six.
The figures for UK deaths in which an ecstasy-type drug played a role either on its own, or in association with other illegal drugs, were: 45, 33, six, eight, 20. On this basis, ecstasy is relatively safe when compared with the main legal drugs. The number of deaths attributed to cannabis use in Britain, or Ireland, over the same period was nil. Same as everywhere, same as always.
If we base our conclusions on available, reliable statistics, cannabis is to be recommended over alcohol, tobacco and a range of other illegal and legal drugs.
Of course, relative safety is not the only consideration. The illegal status of comparatively harmless substances means that even personal possession can result in a criminal record potentially devastating for prospects in life, particularly of young people not yet launched on a career.
Facts such as these which would facilitate rational public debate on the appropriate laws to apply to different drugs are rarely spotlighted either in the media, or by politicians.
Many in positions of influence apparently prefer to keep the people in ignorance, lest the irrationality of their stance is exposed – greatly to the satisfaction of the booze and fags lobbies.
Not only is booze within the law, it is advertised in a way that suggests it's impossible to enjoy a night out without gulping quantities down. In the year just past, we even had a day devoted to celebration of a brand of the addictive killer concoction.
But to suggest the sale of cannabis on the same basis is enough to incite fits of the heebie-jeebies. Even sections of the medical profession join in the hysteria. I've heard a GP tell a community meeting that one toke of a cannabis joint can result in a life-long addiction.
Can cannabis or ecstasy lead on to more harmful drugs? Yes, of course, and this will be true until such times as people – and we are dealing here mainly with young people – don't have to venture into murky territory outside the law to acquire tiny amounts, where they quickly discover other illegal substances also circulate.
Insofar as there is a link between cannabis and ecstasy on the one hand and, say, cocaine and heroin on the other, this arises from the fact that cannabis and ecstasy share the same legal status as the others.
This was likewise true in the United States in the 1920s and early-1930s during prohibition: alcohol could be bought only in illegal speakeasies, where abundant quantities of heroin, in particular, circulated widely and the Capones of this world ruled the roost.
The evidence suggests that here now, as there then, alcohol is the main "gateway" drug, with the Capone role taken by local criminals, including paramilitaries and ex-paramilitaries, especially on the loyalist side. A large proportion of the illegal drugs on sale in nationalist communities is bought by the pushers from loyalists.
Illegality is also key to the adulteration of, for example, ecstasy. There can be no quality control, or tests, to establish whether a particular batch contains other, unidentified substances.
In spite of the overwhelming evidence, it seems that no MLA is willing to stand up in the Assembly and state the plain facts. In so doing, they'd risk the wrath of the Minister for Health and others who are ever-ready cynically to use apparent deaths from ecstasy to spread dangerous misinformation.
If only in the interests of preventing further tragedy, it's time we wised up to the truth about drugs and the relative dangers of drugs and started loudly to tell this truth.