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Opinion: Most young people involved in street-level dealing are among our most vulnerable citizens

Youth worker Eoin Lynagh is part of a group calling for an end to prohibition.

Eoin Lynagh

LAST WEEK, I and more than a hundred youth workers and notable politicians signed a letter calling for an end to the prohibition of drugs in Ireland.

The campaign, launched by Youth Workers Against Prohibition (YWAP), was born from our frustration watching young people we work with being exploited by a drug trade that we believe should be regulated and run by the state.

For too long, An Garda Síochána have been asked to shoulder the burden of bringing an end to the war on drugs. While we respectfully disagree with the current AGS policy, it is understandable.

The community has called for a response to anti-social behaviour and open street dealing. The Gardaí are not an advocacy group nor an instrument of policy reform. It is their role to uphold the law and within the current system, drugs are illegal.

Just who does the ‘war on drugs’ target?

The ‘war on drugs’ is unwinnable and a new approach is needed. The National Drugs Strategy (2017) calls for a health-led response to the issue of drugs.

Placing health at the centre of drug policy requires the ending of prohibition. By no longer focussing on an unwinnable war, Gardaí could concentrate on other areas: burglaries, domestic violence, bike thefts, online fraud, organised crime and community policing. 


I work directly with young people involved in street-level dealing. It may surprise readers, but they are some of our most vulnerable citizens. They are early school leavers, often from broken homes where addiction was prevalent and with few positive role models.

Some have experienced trauma that the average person cannot imagine. They lack the hope in their lives that they will ever amount to anything other than a dealer and a criminal. It’s easy to look at bravado, designer clothes, or antisocial behaviour and label them as thugs. But often, one wrong move — a lost drug package, a personal quarrel, being labelled a “rat” —  is all that it takes for them to become victims of the gangs they have been groomed by. 

We’re not trying to minimise the effect that these young people can have on individuals and communities. Violence, intimidation, and other forms of criminality go with the territory of an unregulated drugs market.

There are victims of these crimes and there needs to be accountability. I see amazing, passionate professionals, including youth workers and Gardaí, going above and beyond with these young people and their families to provide support and opportunities, and to show them that another way is possible.

Forgotten people

Often though, it’s like trying to treat a bullet wound with a plaster. The Greentown report found that young people that end up engaging in serious offending are presenting with issues relating to drugs and alcohol, familial involvement in criminality, problematic school engagement and ineffective parenting. Ending prohibition will not be a silver bullet to all of Ireland’s problems and social inequality must also be addressed. 

YWAP are all too aware of the damages that drugs can cause. They can affect brain development and make young people more vulnerable to addiction and exploitation. We believe ending prohibition will reduce the risk to young people from drugs. A regulated market will require ID, introduce quality control and provide a paper trail to the source of drugs.

At our YWAP meetings, we have discussed many of the ramifications of ending prohibition. One of the first things to consider is how to deal with the mid-level dealers? They are often highly intelligent, driven individuals. It may sound radical but they will need to be reached out to in some form.

Yes they can be violent, yes I disapprove of their actions but would I have done differently in their shoes? They’re saying, ‘f**k the handouts, we see a gap in the market where we can get money and status and we’re going to take advantage’.

One youth worker uses the term ‘entrepreneurs of their own environment’ and I think that’s spot on. There are undoubtedly risks in ending prohibition but what I feel is not discussed enough is the ramifications of the current policy of prohibition. This war is being fought all over the world with incalculably large expenses to exchequers and people's lives, and there is no end in sight

Ask yourself, is prohibition working?

In Ireland, organised crime gangs take advantage of prohibition by using children to store, sell and consume their product, safe in the knowledge that children will face lighter punishments under the Law.

Despite current enforcement and awareness campaigns, drug use and harm continue to increase. Could anyone really argue that drug policy in Ireland over the past 30 years has been successful? We know the harms of drugs but If we don’t also look at systemic problems caused by outdated drug laws, we will continue to fail vulnerable young people and society as a whole.


Communities that have been insulated from the impacts of drug use and prohibition can not stick their heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening. Drugs and gang violence were not a common feature where I grew up, and if someone had told me five years ago that I would be advocating for legalising drugs, I’d have thought they were mad.

But my experiences on the front line of the youth justice system have shown me that the system needs to change. Families and communities that were badly damaged by the drug epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s are still dealing with trauma experienced during this time.  Young people in these communities often don’t have the same basic support as the rest of society which makes them vulnerable to engaging in high risk and antisocial behaviour and exploitation. Prohibition prevented the appropriate support then, and it continues today. 

Everyone will be exposed to drugs eventually, whether at college, a festival, or a work party. Young people have outgrown available drug education and ‘Just say no’ and scaremongering has failed in keeping children and communities safe.

Another way

Youth workers need to educate communities on both the dangers of drugs and on harm reduction, so that when the time comes if people do choose to take drugs, they can do so as safely as possible. 

While we are calling for an end to the prohibition of all drugs, the timeline and means of regulation will vary for different substances. Cannabis, heroin and cocaine will all need to be regulated and dispensed differently.

Any significant change in policy should be accompanied by thoughtful engagement and dialogue. The Citizens' Assembly has been an incredibly useful means of analysing whether the current approach to an issue is working for Irish society.

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Given the impact of current drug policy on the lives of so many within our communities, reform should be on the agenda for the upcoming Citizens' Assembly and politicians should step up and voice their opinions on this issue. 

We've been told we’re facing an uphill battle with this campaign. I agree. We’re ready for it.

Eoin Lynagh is a youth justice worker and a member of Youth Workers Against Prohibition. 


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Eoin Lynagh

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