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Why not debate legalisation of some drugs… yeah, it’s those pesky social liberals the Jesuits again… or crime, the media and the left: Part 1. July 17, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Crime.
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Anyone watching the RTÉ news last night would have been intrigued to see our new Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, at the launch of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice Directory of Criminological Research.

Well, not so much the Minister, as some of the comments that were made afterwards.

Now, for any of us on the progressive end of the spectrum the CFJ website is worth a visit. There is a broad array of documentation on the very areas which we are interested in. Social justice, equality, housing, crime, educational disadvantage. It’s all there and the line is good.
Still, they’re a brave group considering that Fr. Tony O’Riordan, the Director of the CFJ suggested that it would ‘remove the profit motive for a lot of these gang led murders…and a lot of the violence that ensues from the use of drugs would be curtailed if drugs were regularised…because they’re here to stay.’

Interestingly, in terms of how the public discourse is shaped, the RTÉ reporter noted that at the end of the report:

“curiously though while on the face of it there does appear to be a growing problem with violence in this country figures to be published by the World Health Organisation at a conference in Scotland tomorrow put Ireland at the bottom of a list of 27 European countries when it comes to violent deaths and assaults”

Actually it’s not curious at all. The public narrative on this issue, as exemplified by the comments of the reporter is one which cannot countenance a reality which is rather more mundane than the superheated rhetoric of the media.

The Irish Independent greeted this news with the following:

“We live in Europe’s safest country – despite three violent deaths which happened over the weekend. A shooting, a stabbing and an assault in a 48-hour period might suggest Ireland’s murder rate is soaring.”

It continued,

But not according to the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) figures, due to be released at a conference in Fife, Scotland, tomorrow.

Ireland is the least violent country in Europe, says the WHO, which compared homicide and assault rates across 27 European countries.

And our rate?

0.32 killings per 100,000 people, contrasted with that of Finland (1.96) and Scotland (1.75) which topped western Europe’s violence blacklist.

Throw in a statistically inapposite quote:

This is despite a study released earlier this year showing Dublin’s murder rate is increasing faster than that of any other European capital city.

And then note that:

At the last WHO conference on violence five years ago, Ireland’s murder and assault rate was recorded at 1.13 per 100,000 population.

Irish rates have dropped in each subsequent year, culminating in the low of 0.32 recorded in 2005, the last year for which Europe-wide figures are available.

More disturbingly, on one level, is the data from the Baltic states:

In Estonia, it is 8.85 per 100,000, while Lithuania has 8.9 and Latvia 10.37.

Consider the discourse. The word ‘despite’ is used in the Irish Independent report, the reference to the ‘murder rate soaring’. But three murders across a weekend does not alter the broad statistical analysis, nor do the other tragic events of the last day or so. Vincent Browne in a good article in the Village noted that:

“the level of crime per head of the population has remained static or declined in the last 23 years”.

Looking at the murder figures there have been some very puzzling upward blips. Consider that between 1930 and 1940 the rate went from 54 to a peak of 68 in 1935 before dipping to 30 in 1940. Since then there were upward jumps of 57 in 1974, 41 in 1987, 59 in 2002 and 66 last year. Yet in that time the population has swelled considerably. So while there may indeed be more crimes committed that is in the context of many more people to both commit and be the victims of those crimes.”

As Browne notes:

In 1983 the population was around 3.5 million; it is now over 4 million. The headline crime rate in 1983 per 1,000 of the population was 29.3. The rate in 2006 was 26. And throughout the period from 1983 to 2006 the rate per 1,000 of the population was have been either static or in decline.

There are other factors as well. Two of the murder victims were non-nationals. I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of their deaths, particularly since the reasons for it remain opaque, but as a relatively youthful emigrant living in London and briefly New York I remember the excessive drinking and the arguments all too well. People being people that sort of mix can produce fairly specific tensions and dynamics.
Yet can anyone see Fr. O’Riordains suggestion being implemented? In a context where crime is seen as ‘soaring’, where ‘despite’ is the reflexive response to the World Health Organisation and even the most basic contextualisation is lacking it doesn’t seem likely.

And this is difficult terrain for the left and therefore worth returning to.

Comments»

1. WorldbyStorm - November 30, -0001

It is a difficult one, I’d have a lot of sympathy for your viewpoint Ed, but… watching the array of Labour ministers coming out yesterday beating their breast over their past crimes, their remarkable insight into ‘drugs’ and the way in which somehow it was different now somewhat revolted me. I don’t take drugs bar alcohol, don’t like em, loathe cocaine chic which is built on real human misery, but cannabis strikes me as relatively low key and the previous decision by the UK govt seemed as enlightened as one could expect.

I’ve seen cannabis do significant harm, but then I’ve seen heroin do much more significant harm to people I know. And on a broader basis I’ve seen alcohol do more significant harm again to more people that I know.

I don’t know what the solution is, or whether there is one, but the current mutterings from Labour don’t reassure me that they have a better grasp of it than I.

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2. chekov - July 17, 2007

“Consider that between 1930 and 1940 the rate went from 54 to a peak of 68 in 1935 before dipping to 30 in 1940.”

It’s interesting to note that the sharp drop occured in 1937 – after Dev had tamed the RA. Until then, the murder rate was inflated with the low level civil war that had continued in much of the country.

The sustained hyping of crime risks by the media, in the face of the evidence are a really bad part of what it does. It’s a symbiotic unspoken pact with the ruling class – fear sells papers and fear makes people easier to rule – “crime down” does not a front-page make and “crime: not a huge problem” does not an elected politician make.

On the general point, I don’t think there’s any rationale reason why drugs shouldn’t be legalized tomorrow – trouble is that politics doesn’t deal with reason and there isn’t a politician in the country who doesn’t understand that the issue is one where all the real-politik is on the other side of the argument (i.e. the yanks would be very unhappy, as would the religious, the publicans, the generally bitter and all sorts of other significant players).

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3. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

Interesting though isn’t it that it is the CFJ which is one of the few voices willing to articulate any sort of pragmatic viewpoint on these issues. I completely agree re your analysis about hype…

Personally I see the issue as one where seeing this as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue might be a possible model, in a way similar to the treatment of alcohol. How that pans out in practice is where the debate sits…

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4. Idris of Dungiven - July 19, 2007

Wrt to legalisation of drugs, while I think society may ultimately be forced to legalise it’, that won’t be some great blow for liberty, it’ll be one of those rotten things that have to be done out of necessity.

Given the tendency of Irish people to abuse the legal drug alcohol, and their proven ability to abuse currently illegal drugs, I’d venture to say that if those illegal drugs were legalised, the numbers of Irish people abusing them would increase. And the consequences would be neither cheap nor pretty.

The overall level of crime may well have remained static overall – but we have seen a new kind of sadistic murder appear in Irish life, and isn’t it also true there’s also been a serious increase in serious sexual crime, including rape.

None of which should be taken as supporting the duplicity of either the media or mainstream politicians on the crime issue, naturally.

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5. ejh - July 19, 2007

I think there would be some appropriate rejoicing insofar as it would bring an end to the petty harrassment of people doing something that it’s basically of their own choice on their own time, the making them run risks with their employment, the culture of lies it brings about and so on.

Mind you I don’t take the stuff – as a non-smoker I don’t know how to inhale properly and I’m damned if I’m going to cough my guts up for the entertainment of tokers half my age.

The phrase “Blow for liberty” is quite good though.

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6. WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2007

Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it how so many on the left are actually quite reserved about drugs liberalisation etc. That’s been changed by the rise of more libertarian thinking. A generational thing too?

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7. chekov - July 19, 2007

“I’d venture to say that if those illegal drugs were legalised, the numbers of Irish people abusing them would increase. And the consequences would be neither cheap nor pretty.”

It depends on how you did it.

The obvious capitalist solution would be to treat it the same as alcohol – a substance that is licensed, taxed and regulated by the state, but otherwise controlled by private enterprise. I think that would be a bad solution in that it would create a powerful economic actor with an existential need to increase public consumption of their product. However, it would still be an improvement on the current situation. Even if the industry was as free to promote their product as the alcohol industry is, and succeeded in increasing consumption markedly, the public health implications would be mixed (more consumption would be offset by better quality control) while the public safety and security implications would be enormously positive.

An enormous amount of petty crime is driven by the artificially high prices of drugs due to their illegality. There are very few people who are driven to become muggers in order to get their next fix of cider, or a carton of cigarettes despite the fact that there are at many times more heavily dependant alcoholics in the country than there are drug-addicts. Nowadays, almost all of gangland violence is driven by competition for drug profits. Also, most recreational drugs have surprisingly mild health risks associated with them – it’s the associated lack of self-care, destitution, impurities, homelessness, poverty and so on that have the negative impact on public health. Nothing, with the possible exception of crack cocaine, has anything even approaching the negative health impact that alcohol has – not to mention its negative social impact.

So, in summary, even if they were to legalize it in the worst possible way – as a taxed, for-profit industry, it would still almost certainly be a large improvement on the present farce.

But, you could do it in many more sensible ways. For example, you could set up a not-for-profit distribution board with a mission to monitor the impact of drug usage on public health and other metrics, and to inform the public of the latest scientific understanding of the various risks involved in drug-use. The body could be funded by independent analysis of the savings in security, crime and health expenditure compared to the current drugs situation. And all the evidence seems to suggest that these savings would be enormous, meaning that the body could distribute the drugs at below cost price, meaning that there would be an instant elimination of the black market, and as a monopoly supplier, the body would have extraordinarily high quality information.

“and isn’t it also true there’s also been a serious increase in serious sexual crime, including rape.”

I doubt that. From what we now know about the hithertofore hidden corners of our social history, rape, particularly child rape, was a perfectly acceptable behaviour within many of the major institutions that dominated 20th century Ireland. I’d guess that the modern day awareness of this fact has seen the tradition decline markedly.

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8. WorldbyStorm - July 19, 2007

I’d tend to agree with you Chekov on the last point at least with regard to one of the good things, not merely about Ireland but also the UK, being a greater transparency over the past decade and a half about such matters. That alone would diminish the frequency of such crimes…

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9. Idris of Dungiven - July 20, 2007

Chekov – it’s not just about the costs of having muggers mugging to feed their fix. It’s also about the costs to the community of the health consequences of these drugs. Cannabis is certainly not the harmless stoner fuel of post-1960s myth. Anyone from a family with a history of mental illness should stay well away from it.

Those who do encounter mental health problems as a result of cannabis abuse will not be the only ones who pay for it.

Then there’s the old argument that if soft drugs were legalised the links between soft and hard drugs would be broken (as dealers would be taken out of the equation). This argument may be obsolete. It was developed long before the current situation where drug use permeates society at all levels. In the present situation, to make the use of ‘soft’ drugs legal might well encourage increased usage of ‘hard’ drugs as well. The huge increase in illegal drug use in Ireland has coincided with an explosion of alcohol consumption after all.

Also the dealers who would have the rug pulled out from under them by legalisation would hardly simply slip into retirement. They might easily try to develop markets for things like crystal meth, a substance which I doubt even the most ardent supporter of legalisation would see as a likely candidate for legalisation.

As I said, it may well be the case that the costs of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ here and abroad may become so great that legalisation (or at least a major reassessment of priorities) will become the only viable option. But the fact that some of the strongest supporters of legalisation today are the likes of the Economist magazine should set the alarms bell ringing for anyone from the socialist tradition.

As for the changes in Irish society that have allowed for greater openness with regards to sexual matters, including sexual crime, well I’d like to think it would reduce the frequency of such crimes. But I think that one thing Irish people have retained from the old days is a tendency towards unjustified self-congratulation, and I’m not sure if things are as perfect now as the official ideology of the Celtic Tiger says they are.

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10. ejh - July 20, 2007

But the fact that some of the strongest supporters of legalisation today are the likes of the Economist magazine should set the alarms bell ringing for anyone from the socialist tradition.

Why? Are their specific arguments they use necessarily ones we would oppose? Would the Economist and the left never find anything to agree on? And are there not sufficient socialist arguments for legalisation that one needs to rely on the positions of the Economist?

At the end of the day the war on drugs is a policy that is not only failing, it is failing everywhere and it is failing stupidly. One doesn’t have to think cannabis or alcohol harmless (they’re not) or to be against proscriptions on principle (I’m certainly not) or indeed to think the policy is entirely ill-motivated (I don’t) just to say that alternatives to this stupidity really need to be found – and argued for, because otherwise they’re not going to happen.

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11. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

There is a sustained hyping of crime. But that is partially because people do recognise some of what they read as real. The level of silly, idiotic anti-social behaviour on any given weekend; the aggression and desire to fight, the puking up and people lying in their own piss, I know all of this happened years ago, in ancient Rome if that TV series is anything to go by, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t getting worse. And different types of drugs do make a difference. Plus if you live in an estate then anti-social behaviour is a pain the arse and (please don’t be shocked) most working class people are quite happy to see the cops arrive and tell teenagers to put out their bonfire, stop drinking their cider, fuck off home etc.

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12. ejh - July 20, 2007

I think the “please don’t be shocked” is the bit I don’t like about that posting: it’s the showboating, I’m-with-the-real-working-class-who-you-don’t-know-anything-about style, kind of a leftwing equivalent to “I know it’s not terribly fshionable to say this”. Just give us your opinion, eh? Don’t pose about while you’re doing it.

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13. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

Some people on the left are shocked when you say that while lots of people don’t love the police, they usually rather them to drug dealers and scum bags. I have a weird memory of an SWP doctor who was in some kind of scrape and as a result the Guards called to his house. His 5 year old went ot the door and asked bewildered of Templemore why he ‘beat up workers.’ Thats my my opinion.

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14. ejh - July 20, 2007

Some people on the left are shocked when you say that while lots of people don’t love the police, they usually rather them to drug dealers and scum bags.

I actually doubt this, and any decent opinion ought to be able to make its own case without needing to buttress itself with silliness about the opinions of other people.

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15. Ed Hayes - July 20, 2007

Thats me told then.

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16. WorldbyStorm - July 20, 2007

It is a difficult one, I’d have considerable sympathy for your viewpoint Ed. Mind you watching the array of Labour ministers coming out yesterday beating their breast over their past crimes, their remarkable insight into ‘drugs’ and the way in which somehow it was different now somewhat revolted me. I don’t take drugs bar alcohol, don’t like em, loathe cocaine chic which is built on real human misery, but cannabis strikes me as relatively low key and the previous decision by the UK govt seemed as enlightened as one could expect.

I’ve seen cannabis do significant harm, but then I’ve seen heroin do much more significant harm to people I know. And on a broader basis I’ve seen alcohol do more significant harm again to more people that I know.

I don’t know what the solution is, or whether there is one, but the current mutterings from Labour don’t reassure me that they have a better grasp of it than I.

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17. Never mind the statistics just feel the…er… feeling. John Waters has looked into his heart again…. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 31, 2007

[…] problem here. Is 60+ a 1000% increase on the early 1960s figures? Well, we’ve looked at these before, haven’t we. Because those figures were not quite in the single figures JW proposes. Between […]

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