The Irish War on Drugs by Paul O' Mahony
Paul O'Mahony gave a thought provoking talk outlining the arguments made in his book The Irish War on Drugs. A criminologist and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology in Trinity College Dublin he has written extensively on the issues of drugs, crime, treatment, prison and rehabilitation. www.dublincitypubliclibraries.com
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - The Irish War on Drugs by Paul O' Mahony
In June 1971, US President Richard Nixon
declared a ‘war on drugs’. Drugs won.
1] Parse and analyse the official language on drugs policy,
both national and international
Because it underplays the role of the criminal law, is confused on
harm reduction and relies on an inadequate economic analogy
(supply and demand reduction).
2] Provide a history and analysis of the drugs problem and the
criminal justice response in Ireland over the last 35 years.
3] Arguing the case for and against prohibition from this evidence
and other theoretical and evidential bases
4] Explain the reluctance to abandon prohibition despite the
overwhelming evidence against it
DRUGS & CRIME
Importation, manufacture, trade, and possession, other than by
prescription, of most psychoactive substances are defined as
criminal by Irish law. Prohibition creates inherent drug crime.
drugs and other types of
crime, such as theft from
the person, burglary,
larceny, tax evasion,
homicide, are very strong
in Ireland. Keogh (1996)
attributed two-thirds of all
indictable crime in Dublin
to opiate users.
There are many viciously negative synergies in drugs/crime connection
Goldstein (1985) has made a useful distinction
between the ways drugs lead to or increase violent
1) the direct pharmacological effects of drugs on brain
and behaviour –disinhibition, aggression, paranoia;
2) the ‘economic compulsive’ need to support
continued drug use – financing the next fix through
theft, fraud etc.;
3) the ‘systemic violence’ associated with the control
of markets, transactions, debt collection, and
supply and distribution networks – related to the
potentially huge profits to be made, if you are
prepared to defy the law.
There are also many others types of drug-related
Criminal damage & degradation of the environment
Nuisance behaviour and bullying in a locality
Neglect & abuse of children and dependents
An Endemic drugs culture
The CJS response
and its effects
The drugs gang
D rug s c ha rg e s 1 9 6 9 -2 0 0 1
The current problem has evolved in a gradual way over 40 years.
The current generation of users and gangs has been shaped by the
previous generations. This point is especially important with
respect to the role of gangs, the escalation in the use of violence
and general attitudes towards drugs.
The penal system and prisons have been part of this evolution and
greatly contributed to the seriousness of the present endemic
About 300 of nearly
9000 drug crimes in
2001 led to prison
sentences - 3.5%.
But we have draconian
which often makes
examples of relatively
innocent and lowly
drugs mules coerced
Only a handful of the
scores of drug gang
killers have been
brought to Justice.
In 2005, a survey of the psychiatric status of Irish
prisoners found that 59% of male sentenced
prisoners had a drug dependency problem and 45%
an alcohol dependency problem. Prisons were
ineffective at rehabilitation but became the country’s
largest methadone clinics.
Only 26% of sentenced prisoners had neither a drug
nor an alcohol dependency problem.
In fact, one survey of prisoners suggests that as
many as 21% of intravenous (IV) drug users first
injected drugs while in prison.
Drugs became the central obsession of prison life,
elevating violence and intimidation inside and
helping spread destructive use, attitudes and
criminal behaviours throughout the country
The Dublin prisons and Mountjoy Prison in particular
“epicentre of destructive drug-taking in Ireland,
playing a major role in the spread of pro-drugs
attitudes and of seriously damaging forms of drug
They became the centre of a virulently powerful
drugs culture, notable for its embrace of reckless
hedonism and mindless risk. In short, the very
institution, prison, which was intended to be the
main instrument of general and individual
deterrence from drug use, became a hothouse
environment, nurturing destructive drug use,
unhealthy patterns of behaviour and wildly
‘Key Issues for drug policy in Irish prisons’
Drug Policy Action Group (2008)
Paradoxes of the ‘War’ on drugs
The drugs gang
Gang culture is a perfect fit for the drugs
business and gang formation is a natural and
ordinary social process
The traditionally family-based ‘criminal’ gang
culture in Ireland has evolved very rapidly through
the drugs era, embracing stigma, criminality and
violence and turning them to their own advantage.
Children in this situation are directly socialised into
But many young boys who have been wellparented get caught up in gangs through interaction
with peers and when they venture out into the world
and their awareness of the world expands.
Key motives (particularly strong in teenagers) for
joining a delinquent or antisocial gang include:
1) need for personal identity, independent of family
2) need to belong, get acceptance, attention &
support of peers, substitute family
3) pride – need to gain respect, status and honour
4) fear – need for protection in a dangerous world
5) excitement and challenge – driven by boredom
and sense of helplessness and hopelessness
Steps like joining a gang have an almost
Antisocial gangs evolve in order to solve problems posed by
the social world in which the members find themselves living.
Tough and unfair conditions create tough and unfair people
(but not always).
Teenagers, who have failed at school and sport, join gangs to
acquire status and hit back at the school and the broader social
system, which have branded them as failures.
Gangs and their members channel their resentment and
frustration into defiance and a hard man lifestyle. Toughness,
domineering attitudes and a readiness to use violence are the
Immature brains and personalities are making wrong turns
before they can even read the map of life…. Moral short-circuiting
(they learn to be brutal before fully appreciating what brutal is)
The drugs business is a huge attraction
for gangs, offering pleasure, excitement, proof of
autonomy and toughness as well as a hugely
profitable, ‘negatively glamorous’ occupation.
Over the last 35 years, because of the high
financial stakes and the chaotically self-regulated
nature of the criminal drugs market, which relies
on intimidation, drugs gangs have become
progressively more violent, brutal and callous.
Eventually embracing a macho gun culture.
Hundreds of thousands of basically normal,
essentially non-criminal, Irish citizens collude
with the criminal suppliers, making the criminal
subculture almost immune to the efforts of law
Many of the major social and technological
changes of the last 50 years have had positive
aspects, but they have also had a negative,
fragmenting influence on the Irish community
and the belief systems that used to hold it
Changes have weakened
core social bonds :
shared value systems.
New stresses have emerged in a more
work, money and ‘success’ focused society.
Consumerist, materialist lifestyle
More competition in education and work
Increased pace and intensity of life (ICT;
Massive change in sexual mores (confusion for male
Expectations risen enormously (driven by
Globalisation: homogenisation of values led by
All these interacting changes have impacted
dramatically on the way of life and on the quantity
and quality of crime. They help explain why people
in modern Ireland are so susceptible to the allure
Alienation – cynicism about politics and communal
values & lack of awareness of interdependence.
Exclusion - The widening gap between aspiration and
reality for some young people leading to profound
resentment and anger. Social inequality is more powerful
in creating crime than individual factors and is the
aspect most amenable to change.
Hedonistic culture of release, license and excess
(sometimes violent) partly in response to stress,
competition, regulation, alienation and exclusion.
The key question is whether the use of the criminal law
against drugs causes more harm than it prevents.
Prohibition has utterly failed to eliminate or even contain drug
use. On the contrary the last 30 years has witnessed exponential
growth in the use of drugs, in drug-related harms and in prodrug attitudes amongst the young. Drugs are cheaper and more
widely available than ever.
All the dreadful, drug-related harms and the serious drugslinked deterioration in the quality of life in Irish communities
have occurred under a prohibitionist regime.
Prohibition has created a criminal monopoly that enriches those
ruthless enough to use violence and intimidation in order to turn
a profit. Prohibition is a precondition for this criminal culture.
We have an almost universal and almost irrestistible
urge to indulge in mood-altering substances.
We also have an innate predisposition favouring
autonomy; we consider our own bodies and
consciousness as our own business and under
personal control. Young people especially resist
attempts at control.
The developing human rights culture recognises
and supports individual freedom and bodily integrity.
Laws that strain against human nature will
The hypocrisy and self-contradiction of prohibition
(the widespread use of alcohol, medically-prescribed
drugs etc) undermines the effectiveness (credibility)
of education and prevention.
Prohibition encourages a clandestine situation where
criminal pushers and even users have a vested
interest in mystifying drug use and spreading and
The whole drugs culture takes on a negative glamour
that is very appealing to rebellious youth. Drug use
‘proves’ maturity and independence. The ignorance,
mystique and excitement that surround the clandestine
drugs market greatly diminish people’s natural prudence
and instinct for self-preservation. Forbidden fruit.
The failure of prohibition to distinguish between less
and more dangerous drugs and ways of using them and
between legal and illegal drugs undermines the ability to
educate, warn and dissuade.
Abandoning prohibition promises the benefits of
quality control, regulation, redirecting massive futile
law enforcement expenditure to more productive
treatment and prevention and, most importantly
and essentially, severing the drugs crime link.
Severing the link with crime is a precondition for
successful decriminalization and this implies complete
legal toleration of individual choice for all drugs and
forms of use.
However some drugs and forms of use are so
dangerous and the addiction process is so seductive
that a laissez-faire approach is not an option. Complete
decriminalization is not justified and should not be
undertaken without a massive proactive and constant
campaign of education, prevention and treatment (short
only of coercive – law enforcement activity).
of Destructive use
End to HR
End to unjust
Full legalisation, not medicalisation
Equanimity in face of continued use and problems
Ubiquitous and energetic educational programmes against
destructive use of drugs
Real progress towards social justice