For a nation that spends �400m more on stout than we do on the entire educational budget for our primary schools, the shock and horror being expressed this morning about an Oireachtas survey on drug use, is a bit hard to take.

Think about it, last year we spent �1.6bn on stout (not booze, just stout) while we spent only �1.2bn on primary education for every child in the country. In a country with those sort of priorities, is it any surprise that half our teenagers and early twenty somethings have smoked a joint?

At first blush, the thought of 300,000 of our 16-to-25-year-olds skinning up seems like a huge amount, but then again, anyone who has grown up in this society in the past 20 years won’t be that surprised.

Yet yesterday morning, the airwaves were filled by indignation of politicians demanding action.

What country do they live in? What action do they want? Remember that these are the same politicians who preside over a system which makes billions of euro from taxing the two most widespread and addictive drugs we have – alcohol and tobacco.

Furthermore, despite all the (accurate) talk that hash and grass serve as “gateway” drugs to harder Class A drugs like heroin, the primary “gateway” drugs in Ireland are booze and fags.

Who’s met a junkie who neither drinks nor smokes?

Reports like these are very helpful because they wake us up to the reality of life in this country. This is not the so-called reality that the makers of the aspirant legislation on drugs would have us believe, but the real “matter of fact, this is how it is” reality.

This is a society that has always liked to cod itself, to paint an image that is more about the idea we have of ourselves rather than how we actually are. We prefer to live in an “imagined Ireland” rather than a real one.

There are numerous examples of this. For example, we like to think of ourselves as a great, charitable nation that gives a disproportionate amount of our cash to good causes.

Well, it might surprise you to know that we spend more money on Lynx deodorant than we donate to Trocaire.

Furthermore, this survey is a breath of fresh air because it tells us that the Irish drug problem is not someone else’s, it is ours – practically all of us.

It is half our teenage population. Are they criminals? Are your sons and daughters menaces to society? Should they have criminal records because they smoke a few joints?

Can a nation whose young girls drink not twice nor three times, but ten times as much as their Italian counterparts, really isolate cannabis as a unique societal threat?

The question is not whether hash is a good or bad thing (and anyone who has spent time in the company of stoners will tell you that they are amongst the most boring people in the world after a while), the question is what can we do about the fact that half our teenagers are getting stoned? Should we worry?

Up to now, the drugs strategy all over the West has been to restrict supply by making drugs illegal. Obviously, this has neither dimmed people’s yearning to “get off their heads” or their ability to get their hands on the narcotics they want.

So in this regard, it has failed. Drug use seems to just get more commonplace.

On the other hand, the criminalising strategy has, we know, created other problems such as fuelling a vicious criminal underclass that is prepared to risk the law to make the supernormal profits that prohibition ensures.

Any casual observer of the effect of alcohol prohibition on the growth of the mafia in the US of the 1920s could have predicted this.

There is little doubt that most serious crime in Ireland is drugs related.

So what are we to do?

Well, economics tells us that once you restrict supply and create bottlenecks, all sorts of strange things happen.

An interesting way to look at the impact of criminalising drugs on a society is by taking a look at suburban traffic.

LET’S call this approach to the drugs issue the “M50 toll bridge theory of stoners”.

Imagine you are on the M50 today and it is backed up at the toll bridge. You are on a public motorway that you paid for, yet you are funnelled into a private sector bottleneck called a toll bridge. You must both pay and queue for the pleasure of continuing on to the next part of the public motorway. The people who profit are those who have the licence to operate the toll.

The people who suffer are the rest of us. Now remember that there is no reason in the world for the State not to have built the toll bridge, but a legal contract ensures that the company that owns the 500 metres of cash- generating bottleneck at a crucial intersection of a 200km of motorway system is making a fortune. If you owned such a licence to print money like that you wouldn’t give it up easily either. The toll company argues that it took the risk when no one else would and now it is getting its rewards.

Now consider the drug dealer. He has an endless supply of punters who want to buy hash. He takes the risk to distribute. The price of drugs, like the toll at the toll-bridge, is artificial because it has no bearing on the day to day costs of running the operation. He owns a bottleneck and he is not prepared to give it up easily.

Instead of being protected by a contract negotiated by the country’s top lawyers on his behalf with us the taxpayers unbeknownst to us, the drug dealer is protected by the law of the concrete jungle – violence. He is making such good money that he can run an entire operation of small fry who will take risks for him.

The joint smokers – who, as this survey evidences, everyone knows – come from all classes of society. They don’t see the connection between themselves and their mates getting stoned and the killings out in West Dublin.

They are like the drivers on the toll bridge, they pay a price to get through the bottleneck and don’t ask too many questions, because they accept that this is the system.

If the State wants to change the system, either it has to provide a long-term solution to traffic on the M50 such as huge investment in alternative transport or it can buy the distribution bottleneck – that is the toll bridge.

SIMILARLY, if the State wants to do something about the drugs issue it must entertain long-term measures to influence teenage behaviour and in the short-term if it wants to be serious about cleaning up the business, it must also entertain distributing drugs itself.

Many people have moral or emotional problems with this type of cold economic reasoning and I can understand that.

Anyone who has experienced the horror of seeing a friend or family member wrestle with the nightmare that is a heroin addiction will attest to that. However, economics can be a useful aid to help us weigh up our options.

Recreational drug use is as much part of growing up for hundreds of thousands of Irish people as is having a CD collection.

In the years ahead, Ireland – along with every European society – will need to think the unthinkable when it comes to drugs.

A little bit of thinking outside the box might help greatly in dealing with a nation that likes to get off its head.

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