Why we should punish the pushers, but not drug users
Drug taking comes second only to the spectre of paedophilia in its ability to get the public in a panic. Both evoke a murky, squalid underworld populated by depraved ghouls intent on getting their kicks.
And when illicit drugs cause a spate of sudden deaths – eight people have lost their lives over recent weeks in Northern Ireland, in apparently drug-related circumstances – the fear and loathing is cranked up still higher. Who to blame? Who to punish? Which shadowy figures can be dragged forth into the daylight and held to account?
The official response, so far, seems to be that the police should shape up and catch the "nasty people", as health minister Edwin Poots helpfully describes the paramilitary drug-dealers who may be supplying these deadly little green pills.
Other than that, our leaders have no answer to the problem other than the usual old pointless, paternalistic message: "Don't do drugs, kids".
I can imagine the scenario: it's 1am in a Belfast nightclub, and a young clubber is about to pop a pill. But as he lifts it to his lips, a vision of Mr Poots shaking his head in sad disappointment, appears in the young man's mind. So he takes the pill and, with a sigh of relief and a warm glow of inner piety, flushes it down the nearest toilet. Phew, saved at one stroke from crime and degeneracy.
Yeah, right. How about we start living in the real world? To my mind, it's time for a radical rethink of society's approach to hard drugs. Instead of baying for retribution, like a medieval crowd looking for someone to slap in the stocks, we should be looking for smarter answers, informed not by heated emotion but by evidence-based science. Moral opprobrium has no place in this strategy, and neither does woolly statements of official disapproval.
So, as a first step, how about we do the unthinkable and decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use? I know, I know, it sounds like lunacy, doesn't it? Fearful instinct suggests that the streets would be awash with mad-eyed junkies and their dirty, discarded needles.
But while decriminalising drugs may seem frightening and counter-intuitive, the fact is that it has been shown to work.
In the years since Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of all illicit drugs, in 2001, studies have shown that young people growing up there actually use fewer drugs, and deaths from heroin have fallen.
It's a similar story in the Netherlands, where cannabis is (famously) decriminalised: young people living there are less likely to use the drug than their counterparts in Britain or the United States, where users are regarded as criminals.
Why not go a step further, and allow certain drugs to be regulated and even made available on prescription? Again, it sounds bonkers, but experts who work with addicts know that this makes good, rational sense.
Regulation also cuts the link between users and unscrupulous dealers, whose primary objective is to get their customers hooked on the most addictive drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine.
Treating addicts as patients, not as criminals, requires a fairly substantial shift in the public attitude to drugs, from punitive zeal to informed compassion.
You can understand resistance to the idea: by allowing healthcare workers to administer regulated drugs to users, it could appear that the state is officially encouraging addiction.
But Professor David Nutt, former chief drug adviser to the British government, points to a Swiss programme which allowed long-term treatment-resistant addicts to take clean pharmaceutical heroin under medical supervision.
Nutt says that the initiative has "stabilised chaotic lives, allowing users to be socially reintegrated, getting homes and sometimes jobs... as well as removing the health harms associated with polluted, inconsistent street drugs." Few die, and some even make it to the final destination of total abstinence.
As Nutt points out, it isn't just the addicts who benefit: "Crime fell enormously once users could access heroin from the State rather than profiteering dealers ... the expensive programme more than pays for itself in healthcare and law enforcement savings."
Let's be clear, I'm not advocating some cuddly, dope-addled 'anything goes' attitude to the sale and consumption of illicit drugs. By all means, pursue and punish the dealers, the parasites who feed off the all-too-human need for fantasy and escape.
But we must not extend that punitive approach to the users themselves.
Drug addicts are sick people, not evil criminals, and that's the way we should treat them.