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August 23, 2005 - The Observer (UK)

Zero Intelligence

Muddled Thinking Over Drug Use In Prisons Will Help The Criminals

By Henry McDonald

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Is there anyone in either the Dail or the Seannad with the courage and imagination of British Liberal Democrat Chris Davies? The Welsh MEP raised a row in the UK when he suggested that perhaps it was time to rethink the Western world's policy on drugs. Davies put forward the idea long advocated by libertarians that legalising all narcotics would drastically slash the profits of drug smugglers and dealers while reducing crime rates caused by addicts prepared to pay astronomical prices for their fix.

Davies is, in a sense, stating the blindingly obvious: the West is losing the so-called 'war on drugs'. Demand for drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and heroin in the EU and North America is, if you'll excuse the pun, at an all-time high. For instance, even in Afghanistan, the presence of thousands of American and NATO troops has not halted the growing of the poppy and the subsequent production of heroin. In fact, it appears that the 'war on drugs' is probably even less winnable than the 'war on terror', both of which are being prosecuted in that same country.

So far, no one within any of the Irish political parties has taken up the Lib Dem's imaginative proposal. Only the Greens favour the legalisation of certain soft drugs such as cannabis, while the others maintain a prohibitionist stance.

The underlying absurdity of Irish prohibition has led the present government down some ludicrous cul de sacs. In the autumn, justice minister Michael McDowell is going to fulfil the promise he made at the annual conference of the Irish Prison Officers Association last year and introduce a 'zero tolerance' policy regarding drugs in the republic's jails.

Last week, a virtually unreported joint statement from the International Red Cross and the Senlis Council, a Paris-based think-tank on drugs policies, denounced this new 'zero tolerance' position. The Red Cross condemned Ireland's plans to eliminate clean-needle distribution in prisons as a serious threat to public health in the republic, arguing that it will only encourage the spread of Aids and hepatitis C. Both the Red Cross and Senlis urged McDowell to reconsider what these 'damaging policies'.

This is what Dr Massimo Barra, vice-president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said about McDowell's plan: 'Zero tolerance has generally never paid off. Public-health promotion is in the interest of us all. Such measures have been proven to be key elements in strategies targeted at the most vulnerable groups, like drug users. Interventions should be cautious and based on evidence rather than ideology.'

Both the Red Cross and the Senlis Council said the new legislation disregards the recommendations of the World Health Organisation about distributing clean syringes and disinfectant to drug users in prisons.

Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of Senlis, pointed out: 'This new law will encourage the spread of disease in the penal system and will have serious consequences not only in prisons but on society in general.

'We cannot ignore the dangers of HIV/Aids and hepatitis C transmission within the prison system, but by introducing a "zero tolerance" approach, that is what is being done. Drug injection will continue, whether inmates are tested or not, and whether they have clean needles or not. It is vital this problem is approached differently if HIV or hepatitis C epidemics are to be avoided.'

In Ireland, 90 per cent of drug-injecting inmates have been shown to be infected with hepatitis C, according to a 1999 survey. The same study revealed that between 40 to 70 per cent of drug-injecting prisoners have shared equipment, including needles, while in Irish jails.

Meanwhile, a World Health Organisation study in May stated that public-health measures such as distributing clean needles does not increase the range of drug use in jails. Instead, the WHO concluded that such policies bring infection rates under control. Yet if the republic pursues its 'zero tolerance' of drugs in jail, it will result in the very opposite: more inmates suffering from HIV/Aids and hepatitis C, many of them eventually released back into wider Irish society.

The muddled thinking highlighted by both the Red Cross and Senlis over the 'zero tolerance' of drugs in jail is but a symptom of the wider confusion and intellectual dishonesty caused by the overall drugs prohibition policy. By contrast, legalisation would almost immediately wipe out the profits of the drug cartels at home and abroad. Thus the Irish criminals running their drug empires by remote control from southern Spain or the narco-terrorists such as Farc would be unable to hike artificially the price of narcotics which would be subject solely to the laws of supply and demand.

In the meantime, as prohibition reigns, more addicts both inside and outside the Republic's prison system are doomed to die because of political opportunism and cowardice.

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