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Lynn Ruane A mature society accepts that drug use is normal and does not punish addiction

The independent senator says criminalising addiction is about intimidation – it’s society taking revenge and warning others of their fate.

IN REFLECTIONS ON the Guillotine, Albert Camus takes a firm position on the death penalty, which he writes must be abolished.

He argues that not only is the death penalty ineffective, as it does not reduce crime but that it is little more than a failed public spectacle. He goes on to recommend that rather than using capital punishment to deter crime, the French government would do better to improve living conditions.

On reading Camus’ extended essay, I could feel the familiar feeling I get when I know I am reading something that makes sense in relation to today’s justice system. How we punish and shame has evolved, but the public spectacle has remained.

Punishing the poor

I came away from the book thinking about Ireland’s drug laws, the treatment of the poor, the mentally unwell, and how our drug laws are like a modern-day guillotine. In Camus’ time, the guillotine served as a spectacle of punishment and warning to society. The public beheading of a person who had committed a crime would supposedly deter others from doing the same, as on-lookers wouldn’t want to meet the same fate. However, crime continued even under such a spectacle.

Similarly, Ireland’s drug laws mark drug users as deviant and criminal, as abnormal, people who need to be punished. And yet, drug use continues despite this attempt to create fear and shame.

During a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health recently, I had a heated exchange with the Minister of State. I hate to harp on about that meeting, but it’s hard not to. The Minister mentioned “we don’t want to normalise drug use” more than once.

What can we take this to mean in the context of the criminalisation of a person who uses drugs? I know what I take from it. All I hear is that criminalisation must stay, and a person going to prison, court or being arrested is Ireland’s way of publicly shaming the drug user in a bid to point to the “abnormality” of their drug use, to paint it as not socially acceptable.

‘Use is common, addiction is rare’

The thing is, drug use is normal. To quote Paul Hayes, Honorary Professor of Drug Policy, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: “Drug use is common, drug addiction is rare”.

Take our nearest neighbours, for example, in England and Wales, where it is reported that about one adult in three will use an illegal drug in their lifetime, and most will suffer no long-term harm.

So when does drug use usually become harmful? Professor Paul Hayes goes on to note that: “Addiction, unlike use, is heavily concentrated in our poorest communities”. It is poverty that most often leads to drug use becoming dangerous. Drug use is normal; what should not be normalised is the socioeconomic conditions that make lives so harsh that addiction becomes a way to live, to be, for so many people.

A 2019 study from Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that “across 17 states in 2002–2014, opioid overdoses were concentrated in more economically disadvantaged zip codes, indicated by higher rates of poverty and unemployment as well as lower education and median household income”. Camus was right. If we want to deter the “crime”, in this case, problem drug use, we should improve living conditions. We should forget about the guillotine.

Shaming ‘the junkie’

Like Camus, I want to write without avoiding the issues. I want to face the darkest aspects of ourselves and our society and push past language that cultivates continued abuse. Suffering will never be relieved in the broadest sense unless we look at each other and ourselves.

In the words of Camus, “then there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak”. That verbal cloak hides in a language such as: “we don’t want to normalise drug use”. In other words, we don’t want to normalise you, the drug user.

For decades, we have used stigmatising archetypes of people who use drugs. The pusher, the scumbag, the weak, the thief, the compromised and the dishonest: the ‘junkie’. I use this word with discomfort, but let’s not avoid the uncomfortable. This term has been used to describe people who use certain drugs for a long time. Its use has been perpetuated by the media and even by ourselves against our own communities.

I am reminded of an article from 1997 about people buying drugs in Cherry Orchard. Seven times the word appears in the short article. The use of terms like “the living dead” and “Zombies” by residents goes unchallenged, further reinforcing the idea of drug users as not human.

The author painted a picture of a land that belongs to nowhere, where kids roam rubbish-filled streets and no “decent” person wants to stay. Often journalists write about people’s lives, their struggles with heroin addiction like characters, without humanity, and without any opportunity to tell their own stories. It’s a playoff between the “decent” people and the guards, and the supposed bad guys: the dealers and those who buy.


There is never an analysis as to why; why are people selling, and why are people buying. There is no analysis of the socioeconomic reasons why. Again, on the pages of our national newspapers, we were a spectacle. Thankfully, that same year the same reporter reported on research by Community Response, and the headline rightly read: Heroin use ‘a reaction to deprivation’.

Talking about the social determinants of drug use weakens the “us vs. them” narrative. The socio-economic reality shows us that the people accountable for the harm caused by drugs are the decision-makers who have neglected so many communities. If the articles of the time had talked about the social determinants of drug addiction, it would have required middle Ireland to look a little closer inwardly and structurally. Instead, we demonised every victim of substance misuse and refused to see why the derogatory ‘J’ word was so problematic.

The word originated in the 1920s. It comes directly from the word junk, and the drug is the junk. To then add the ‘i.e.’ allows a person to be labelled. You are officially dehumanised, no longer yourself, with your aspirations, hopes and character. Instead, you are discardable junk.

One book I read attributes the word’s origins to people who became dependent on drugs and collected junk to sell to afford the substance. This word is targeted, not at everyone, but specifically at our poor and vulnerable, at those who struggle most with addiction.

And drug laws do exactly the same: they target the poor, not the middle-class drug user. Studies in other countries have shown that low-income people are more likely to be arrested on drug charges and that having parents with university education protects you from getting a conviction on drug charges.

Carrying shame

We punish in our language, and we punish in our laws. Yet punishment has achieved nothing in addressing the drugs issue that we have spoken about for nearly three decades—the crisis has developed and worsened all while drugs have been illegal and users criminalised.

Camus, when exploring capital punishment, sums up my thoughts on drug prohibition. Like the guillotine, criminalising addiction is about intimidation; it’s about society taking its revenge and warning others that this too is your fate, should you succumb to addiction. To stave off all potential substance users, we will make an example of this one. But the modern-day guillotine of our drug laws has done nothing to deter drug use. They have been unable to use the suffering of others as a warning shot to children to “just say no”.

Drug abuse is often seen as out of control, but this isn’t entirely true. Partaking in drug use is usually a person taking control because everything else that came before was not within their power. In a class system, family, or environment where they lacked agency, people often seek out agency in other ways, even if it eventually results in destruction.

Looking at heroin or crack cocaine use as a reaction to deprivation is an essential conversation for Ireland to have. In a world where people, especially marginalised groups of people, don’t fit into mainstream space, the neoliberal space, the middle-class space, the groups who end up diving into drink and drugs are creating their own space in a sense, phenomenologically speaking.

I recently read a book called The Melancholia of Class, and the author, Cynthia Cruz, although talking primarily about class, which includes drink and drugs to a large extent, explains this lack of space in a way that puts it better than I can. “Faced with the realisation that one has no “space” one option is to create, alternative space, within which to live”.

When thinking about space and addiction in this way, it is difficult not to see drug use or addiction as a reaction to an unfair and harsh society. The criminalisation of drug use has failed. Our attempts to “not normalise drug use” have failed. Drug use is normal.

What should not be normalised are the harsh socioeconomic conditions that create drug addiction and harm. We should forget about the guillotine, and redirect the energy into making lives less harsh.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.


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