DUP MLA's horror at man openly smoking cannabis in front of children in Belfast park
Christopher Stalford was horrified that anyone would use drugs in front of his children. Belfast is awash with the poison, he says, and the only answer is more police on the ground
The turning of the year is a time to spend with family. This New Year's Day, my children decided that we would "road-test" the new bicycles that Santa brought. We are very fortunate to live near the Connswater Greenway in Belfast; it is a fantastic facility for young families like mine and is very well used by people of all ages.
As the kids were pedalling down the pathway and I was walking alongside them, two men passed us.
One of them was smoking a cannabis joint. This was at 11.30 in the morning.
The nonchalance and matter-of-fact way in which he was breaking the law - and in front of children, too - made me stop to ask myself: how did this come to be acceptable? How is this now normal?
As the MLA for South Belfast, I have a constituency office in Sandy Row, just around the corner from Shaftesbury Square.
Ask any person living, or working, near Shaftesbury Square and they will tell you that drugs of all varieties are being sold and consumed there in broad daylight.
Another incident springs to mind: I was walking from my office with a member of my staff to a meeting in Botanic Avenue (ironically, the meeting was about drug-users dumping used needles behind a local hotel).
As we were waiting at the traffic lights to cross the road, we witnessed a man approaching two teenagers and asking them openly, "Do you want to buy blues?" (these are pills containing massive quantities of the tranquiliser diazepam), to which the teenagers responded that they did and off they went together.
This was at 11am.
In vast swathes of Belfast, especially in the inner city centre, the unmistakable smell of cannabis hangs thick in the air.
My office has been contacted dozens of times about drug paraphernalia being dumped in entries and playgrounds.
Drug-users are getting younger and younger and lives are being ruined by those who peddle this poison.
Frankly, I have the impression that Belfast is awash with drugs.
Something has happened that both dealers and users feel empowered to behave so brazenly.
In the past, it would have been thought shameful, or risky, to walk past children smoking drugs, or to sell drugs openly for fear of being arrested.
Nobody expects drug dealers to have a sense of shame, but they are at least risk-averse. Why do they now feel there is no risk?
Or that the risk to them is so minimal that they can afford to take it?
The most obvious answer is policing on the ground.
I have no intention of criticising the local neighbourhood police that do tremendous work in my constituency. They work closely with the local community and are respected throughout the area.
Nevertheless, I do think that people throughout the city of Belfast want to see a greater police presence on the ground.
I certainly think that, if it became known by the dealers and the users that the police were regularly patrolling places like Shaftesbury Square and Connswater Greenway, it would act as a deterrent to their criminal behaviour.
On a societal level, I think existing campaigns delivered in schools and through voluntary and community organisations need to be built upon and expanded.
Attitudinal change towards so-called "soft" drugs, like cannabis, is required. Statistics would indicate that cannabis acts as a "gateway" drug.
As a constituency representative, I have seen numerous cases where people with serious addiction and mental health problems say that their descent started with the recreational use of cannabis.
Even setting to one side the compelling arguments about mental health, having waged a war for the best part of 50 years against smoking tobacco, what sort of sensible public health policy would it be to allow for smoking of another kind to become more prevalent?
Recent campaigns around the use of oils derived from cannabis plants for the treatment of serious health conditions should not be used as an argument for full-blown decriminalisation.
On the contrary, I find the argument that, because plant derivatives can achieve one outcome society should endorse practices which will deliver altogether more negative ones, plain silly.
We know the benefits that these oils can bring to people who are suffering. But we also know the damage that recreational smoking of cannabis can do. One does not provide any justification for the other.
I strongly believe that it is time for a step-change in the battle against drug dealing in our society. Belfast will certainly become a better place if those peddling drugs are put out of business.
Some will say it is a fight that cannot be won. I don't agree. I think we have an obligation to start pushing back against this rising tide.
Christopher Stalford is DUP MLA for South Belfast