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Dublin: 1 °C Sunday 17 November, 2019

Lisa McInerney: Misinformation made Bressie's drugs comments front-page news

But the misinformation wasn’t coming from The Voice judge, writes Lisa McInerney, it is coming from his critics – and it’s why young people disregard them.

Lisa McInerney

POOR OLD BRESSIE. Forced by the realisation that he’d lost control of the spotlight, he rushed to clarify his position last week after the Irish Mirror had pounced on his rather conservative comments about cannabis legalisation.

It shouldn’t have been front page news; it was tabloid molehill transformation at its most blatant. The fact that Grainne Kenny of Europe Against Drugs was wheeled out to spew her particular brand of laser-honed hysteria should have been enough to convince us that Bressie’s stance on the War on Drugs was really nothing worth getting het up over.

Grainne Kenny is a mouthpiece as calculatingly ignorant as any you’re likely to hear from in the debate about drug policy. You may remember her from such hilarious interludes as demanding an apology from Fianna Fail when they used The Fratellis song ‘Chelsea Dagger’ at their 2007 Ard Fheis. Granted, its lyrics contain drug references, but that was a fact no doubt lost on Brian Cowen, who likely just thought of it as the one that went “duh-da-da-da-da-da-da”.

Realistically, the legalisation of a major component of a country’s underground economy isn’t something that can be implemented overnight, and certainly not as a substitution for taxes already in place. But there’s no point in focusing on the particulars of his ponderance, because it’s not as if Bressie was presenting an academic paper on the subject.

“It’s preposterous”

The real issue here is that a clean-cut guy in the public eye was attacked for suggesting legislation, because his status signifies that he’s bound by sacred oath to the status quo so desperately upheld by the likes of Ms Kenny. It’s preposterous.

While you’d need to clear your diary for a month and delve into some serious research on global black economy and the prejudices and scapegoats that shaped international drugs policy, there’s one cold, clear fact that’s graspable right now: misinformation is a favoured tool of those who don’t wish to see drug policy reform, and it’s a tool as dangerous as it is blunt.

Various generations will have had their own communal moments for realising that government-sanctioned drug information wasn’t necessarily trustworthy. For a lot of us who grew up in the ’90s, it would have been the death of Leah Betts in the UK and the subsequent ‘killer pills’ campaign, perpetuated by our own media and swooping into our teenage conscience via ads in UK magazines like Smash Hits! and Sugar.

“The problem with the ‘killer pills’ tactic”

The problem with the ‘killer pills’ tactic was, of course, that everyone and his cat was taking Ecstasy at the time, and found there was a distinct lack of dropping dead in their weekend shenanigans. While it was true that using Ecstasy could lead to death, it was true to a lesser extent than eating peanuts could lead to death, or crossing the road could lead to death.

Neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt caused no end of hand-wringing in the UK in 2009 when he made the point that horse-riding was significantly more dangerous than taking Ecstasy (one ‘serious adverse event’ in every 350 compared with one in every 10,000), but he was only adding scientific weight to something the rest of us knew through experience: if you took Ecstasy, you probably weren’t going to die.

It was unfortunately ironic that what had killed Leah Betts, who in death had become a poster child for anti-drugs campaigners, turned out to be water intoxication. She had drunk seven litres in a 90-minute period. The implication is that she had believed that drinking copious amounts of water was the safest way to take the drug, owing to previous Just Say No type campaigns that claimed Ecstasy users were in danger of serious dehydration because taking Ecstasy meant you wouldn’t be able to stop dancing.

It’s unlikely that Leah was all that thirsty on the night she slipped into a coma: misinformation killed Leah Betts.

“Easily deconstructed misinformation peddled as fact”

Her legacy has not been a positive one. Many recreational drug users have become conditioned to distrust tabloid-style moral panic, which is what happens when easily deconstructed misinformation is peddled as fact. The upshot is that when something genuinely dangerous and frightening becomes an issue, many of those who need to heed the warnings dismiss them out of hand.

Mixmag is currently reporting on genuine ‘killer pills’: those containing PMA and PMMA, which are particularly dangerous when mixed with MDMA. “Put aside for a moment your natural, healthy scepticism about drug scare stories” they report, in a concession to the palpable but oft-ignored results of anti-drug hysteria, “because this is real.”

The cannabis issue remains at the forefront of any drug policy debate; its reputation as a ‘gateway drug’ now largely dismissed, it suffers from association with mental health issues, though studies remain unclear as to whether cannabis causes mental illness, or people with mental illness are more likely to smoke cannabis (correlation/causation remains a thorny concept for anti-legislation campaigners).

“Finger-wagging warnings”

There’s an echo of the ’90s Ecstasy panic, though; the majority of our young people will come into contact with cannabis at some stage in their lives, whether it is on a first-hand scale or merely being in the company of someone who partakes, and that experience is the greatest threat to the finger-wagging warnings of Grainne Kenny and her ilk.

Rather like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, it’s much too late to try scare tactics as part of one’s personally or politically-motivated vendetta against cannabis.

Whether or not our society stands to gain anything from the legalisation of cannabis is a discussion which can only be held when we stop simulating lathers of conscience every time someone like Bressie gives public voice to the experiences of a hefty margin. And as long as anti-drugs campaigners continue to utilise selective nuggets and blatant misinformation in an attempt to save Ireland’s youth from themselves, Ireland’s youth will continue to disregard them.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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Lisa McInerney

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