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Cannabis trio have a point but should lay off the booze

The Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol party deserves credit for exposing the hypocrisy of the so-called 'War on Drugs'. However, it shouldn't do so by demonising drink, argues Henry McDonald

Published 24/04/2015

In Northern Ireland, there is a widespread panicky moral hysteria about drug use
In Northern Ireland, there is a widespread panicky moral hysteria about drug use
Serious questions have been raised over drugs and alcohol misuse

There is a lot to be said in favour of Northern Ireland's latest party to enter the general election contest - Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol (CSTA). The three candidates - standing in West Tyrone, East Londonderry and North Down - will do local public discourse a massive favour by highlighting the absurdity of the so-called "War on Drugs" and the monumentally stupid policy of prohibition of all narcotics.

The trio point out, for instance, that since the US state of Colorado legalised cannabis in 2014, local crime rates have dramatically dropped and up to $60m has been raised from taxes on the drug for the state treasury.

Compare this net gain for Colorado with the trillions of dollars spent over five decades or more in anti-drug operations across the planet, which have all failed to reduce global demand, or cut off supply, and which may have helped prolong conflicts from Afghanistan to Colombia.

In Northern Ireland, there is a widespread panicky moral hysteria about drug use and abuse that chokes off any serious debate about whether prohibitive policies actually work, or rather, in fact, fuel further crime, thus deepening social misery.

The CSTA flag-bearers - Glenn Donnelly, Neil Paine and Barry Brown - are, therefore, to be commended for spending their money and their precious time taking a principled position on a witch-hunt, hot-button issue that will not deliver them many votes on May 7.

After all, there isn't a single local politician in the House of Commons, the Stormont Assembly, or any of our new "super councils" who has had the courage to publicly question the efficacy of prohibition, or indeed argue for an alternative drugs policy.

So, at least Donnelly, Pain and Brown are speaking openly about what many ordinary people will express in the privacy of their own homes, in the pub, in the club, in the bookies, on the bus and the train. With apologies to The Verve, they will say that the drugs ban doesn't work, it just makes us all worse.

The problem, however, with CSTA is that they are missing a word in the acronym: the "F" one. Because it doesn't matter that much if cannabis is "safer" than alcohol (although that itself is up for debate given the issues around mental health and drugs), but rather if it happens to be more Fun.

Stoners are, of course, not much fun. As someone who spent a lot of his youth ending up at so-called "parties" in dingy terraced houses in Belfast's Holylands district prior to the student invasion of that one-time bohemian quarter, this writer can attest to that iron law of nature. Stoners are no fun simply because, once they ascend into the clouds on a high, they become socially detached from all around them.In the late-'70s and through the '80s, after closing time in Lavery's Bar, or when we were eventually kicked out of the Crescent Arts Centre, we were always on the hunt for a house party in the streets named after the cities of the Middle East we first learned about in catechism class.

Invariably, we ended up huddling around a two-bar fire in the likes of Jerusalem Street, or Cairo Street, listening to some hippy shipwrecked from the Sixties, marooned in the Thatcherite Eighties, toking away on a spliff and droning on and on about psychic consciousness, while those ultimate English phonies, Pink Floyd, were wailing in the background from a battered secondhand tape-recorder.

Meanwhile, we scoured in misery and in futile pursuit about filthy bare fridges and underneath kitchen tables for a precious can of cheap, nasty larger, or a half-drank bottle of Woodpecker.

Boozing (as opposed to toking) offers the individual the best of all worlds when it comes to pleasure. So, if you are feeling anti-social and of a mind to escape your personal troubles, you can shut the door on reality with a few pints on your own in your favourite pub with no one - hopefully - to disturb you.

Conversely, if you are up for a get-together with friends, especially those you haven't seen in a very long time, the sauce is a perfect social lubricant to loosen up the company and get the conversation flowing.

Or, if you happen to be more of a sophisticated type than this writer, then you can use the booze to help your lunch, or evening meal, slip down nicely with a loved-one or a colleague across the table.

Only ecstasy, arguably, has had a definite collective feelgood impact, especially when you were lucky enough to be at a rave during the acid house craze of the late-80s/early-90s.

Everyone back then got loved-up on "E" - even the football hooligans across the water, as brilliantly chronicled by Irvine Welsh in his novel about a Hibernian Casual thug in The Marabou Stork Nightmare, who is won away from fighting on the terraces by the ecstasy scene.

Most other drugs, though, send the consumer into a silent stupor (although cocaine, of course, makes individuals do very silly things and tells rich people that perhaps they have far too much money). On a more serious point, it has to be acknowledged that there have been very few instances of anyone on drugs smashing a glass into someone's face compared to the alcohol-fuelled violence that blights everywhere in Northern Ireland, from the pub to the street to the casualty department of the local hospital any weekend.

That particular social ill, in the first instance, requires a harsher crackdown by the police and even more severe punishments through the courts than are presently handed out for alcohol-related violence.

It's probably too late for the CSTA list to change its name ahead of the general election. However, if they want to broaden their appeal and make a serious case against drug prohibition, they should firstly stop inadvertently and unintentionally demonising drink.

They could also change their name in time for next year's Assembly election. How about Legalise All Drugs (Lad)? Now that has a real appealing ring to it.

In the meantime, once more it has to be said that the three CSTA candidates deserve praise for tackling an issue that all our politicians run scared from and fail to face the facts about.

Belfast Telegraph

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