The words we use matter. Be it ‘junkie’ instead of ‘addict’ or ‘she had a few drinks’ versus ‘she took drugs’ the words chosen shape the emotional response.
The callous attitude which wants us to maintain criminal penalty for petty drug possession is not one premised in practicality or reasonableness. It is an ideological belief that sees drug users as impure and addicts as a subhuman scourge who block the way into Brown Thomas.
For these people, a young person having their stomach pumped from excessive alcohol intake is ‘a naïve teen that went too far’ a 24-year-old sitting at a field listening to their favourite band caught smoking cannabis is a ‘criminal’ to be put in handcuffs, humiliatingly escorted out of the venue by police and given a criminal record scarring her life prospects forever.
This is the reality of criminalizing possession that many overlook. A bizarre, wholly ineffective and disproportionate response to curbing harmful levels of drug use. I’ve worked at the last two major music festivals in Dublin this summer and I can tell you that the prohibition on underage drinking bares no influence on a 16 year old’s decision to drink damaging quantities of alcohol. Should they all be treated as criminals too? Should we as a society see them as crooks to be punished or as young people vulnerable to peer pressure and making mistakes?
A criminal record is for life. Believing in decriminalization is not about being pro-drugs, it’s about looking past ideological constraints and rationally examining what is the best means to manage drug use.
Portugal has shown that decriminalisation results in a decrease in drug-induced deaths and an overall decrease in drug use among 15- to 24-year-olds.
What the writer in last week’s Irish Times seemed to be legitimately concerned about was a culture of excess which young people are particularly exposed to. I’m sorry to inform him that the overindulgence in hashtags is not indicative of the overindulgence of hash.
And perhaps instead of blaming the culture of excess on a youthful catchphrase ‘#livingmybestlife’ (who actually says that?) the constant assault of advertising from our phones to the plethora of posters plastered across our streets prompting us to ‘treat ourselves’ to ‘buy 12 for the price of 6’ or to ‘live life to the fullest’ manipulating and exploiting our insecurities and desires plays a greater role in that culture of excess than the government’s official position on weed?
We’ve seen this kind of regressive emotional response a thousand times before. The patronizing call to ‘THINK OF THE CHILDREN’ and smear young people as out of control maniacs is typical of a moral panic. In 1972 Stanley Cohen published a seminal work titled ‘folk devils and moral panics’ in which he demonstrated how media in the 1960’s were dramatically amplifying the deviance of the youth subcultures ‘mods and rockers’ to present an enemy to their readers outside the core values of society and as posing a threat to social order itself.
Stoking the flames of moral panic and decrying how decriminalization will be seen as a free pass to engage in dangerous drug use may sell newspapers but by attempting to obstruct much-needed reform it will also destroy lives.