Belfast Telegraph

Would legalising drugs really reap a good harvest?

By Lindy McDowell

If there's one sector of new business currently outperforming all else, it surely has to be the cannabis growth industry.

Not a day now passes when we don't have news of yet another cannabis factory (or several) discovered somewhere in Northern Ireland. Every back street, every town, every townland even, seems to have had one.

You can't help feeling if only Invest NI start-up statistics were on a par...

And these are only the cannabis production plants we hear about - because the PSNI, full credit to them, have busted them.

You have to wonder how much more illicit foliage is still out there being carefully tended in the attics of suburban homes by drug dealers confident of raking it in come harvest time?

Going by the numbers of operations discovered, it looks like the cannabis factory is now about as common a household feature as the old lean-to greenhouse used to be. Or the lettuce cloche.

And the illegal drugs market isn't just growing in terms of farmed pharmaceuticals.

Northern Ireland is awash with all sorts of illicit substances. The problem was once confined mainly to urban areas. Now even the most remote rural area has a habit.

And while the death of a high profile addict like Whitney Houston might seem a million glittering miles away from what happens in our back yard it all comes down to the same thing in the end. Lives blighted. Lives ruined.

And once again we're back to the debate about whether drugs should be legalised.

Among those arguing for the motion this time round is the 85 year-old Tony Bennett who says: "Let's legalise drugs like they do in Amsterdam.

It's a very sane city now. No-one's hiding or sneaking around corners to get it. They go to a doctor to get it."

I absolutely get the thinking behind the legalise-it argument. The great advantage is that you cut out the dealers and you have control over what precisely people are taking. (Pushers being notoriously unscrupulous when it comes to the additives in their product.)

What bothers me are purely the practicalities.

Who does the state supply to? Only addicts? Or can first time users get some as well?

Can the state legally supply the "softer" likes of cannabis (or allow it to be sold in cafes) knowing it has been scientifically linked to disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia?

Will users be able to sue if they develop health problems?

And where do you draw the line?

If as Mr Bennett suggests, doctors are to dole out formerly banned drugs will the state, which can't afford some cancer treatments, be able to fund these substances?

Crack cocaine is hardly something you can flog like alcopops.

But then that leads us in turn to the tricky area of alcohol also being an addictive substance which destroys lives.

(And indeed as the deaths of Whitney and Michael Jackson prove, there's also the matter of addictive prescription drugs.)

Most vocal in calling for drugs to be legalised are the older, middle class users who don't have a whole lot of problem with a little recreational stuff.

But what about the real addicts?

What about the poor and the young who use what they can get their hands on to blot out despair or just boredom?

Would the legalisation of drugs make the problem worse for those at the bottom?

I honestly don't know. But since the state with all its bungling bureaucracy has demonstrated impressive cack-handedness in many another field, I'm not sure tasking it with something as sensitive as drug distribution is really our best bet.

Which brings us back to cracking down on the dealers, the factories and the supply chain.

The PSNI deserve full praise for the success they've achieved to date. But their very success is evidence of the scale of the problem we have here.

A growing problem in every sense.

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