As illegal drug use proves itself ever more prevalent in Irish society, Kate Rothwell asks why public figures are admitting to the crime

The fact that the use of illegal drugs is, as ever, increasing in Ireland is news to no one. There is, however, another worrying drug-related trend on the rise, and that is the open admittance of drug use among public representatives. That is not to say that their actions would be tolerable if kept under wraps, but the casual manner in which this violation of the law is now seemingly often being admitted to by politicians confirms that the use of illegal drugs, in particular that of cannabis, has come to be viewed as acceptable within our society.

The trend has also spread to college politics, with two of this year’s candidates for UCD Students’ Union (SU) President admitting to The University Observer that they had either taken drugs in the past or even still continue to take them. Many SU officers aspire to a career in national politics, so perhaps it is their political idols that have lead them to believe that being blasé about a little recreational drug use is a smart move.

There are certainly a few pro-cannabis role models to look up to in the current Dáil. Independent Roscommon South Leitrim TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan has long been an advocate of introducing the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland, but his election appears to have toned down his radical campaign.

Last week Flanagan announced that he would no longer be smoking cannabis in the Republic of Ireland because of the danger it would pose to his position in Dáil Éireann and the distress that it would cause his family were he to be prosecuted. The drug’s legalisation is also not listed as a main policy on his website; Flanagan clearly knows that pushing his pro-hash policy too far will not do him any favours.

Yet there is support for his cause to be found in Leinster House, with fellow Independent Mick Wallace also promoting the legalisation of the drug. He too is cautious in his crusade, acknowledging that cannabis could “cause problems” and that while he had smoked the drug in the past, he no longer does today.

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, former TD and MEP Eoin Ryan and former Taoiseach Brian Cowen have all admitted to smoking cannabis in the past, as has US President Barack Obama. One has to wonder what the motivation behind such confessions of criminal behaviour could be. Are these politicians trying to play the honesty card and admit to a crime before a rival reveals it? Obama’s revelation was made in his autobiography Dreams from My Father in 1995, more than ten years before his presidential campaign began.

Yet there is a more disconcerting possibility as to why politicians allude to recreational drug use during their more formative years; the hope that their admission could appeal to the youth vote. Their aim may be to show teenagers and twenty-somethings that they are not just straight-laced politicians; they too were once wild, carefree and curious. We can only hope that this is not the case, as such irresponsible policies can only further the already flourishing drug trade in Ireland.

Last year’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) report listed Ireland as having the highest rate of reported heroin use in Europe and as being among the top ten European countries with the highest rates of reported use of cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy.

The largest cannabis farm ever uncovered in Ireland, discovered by the Gardaí just two weeks ago, was about to undergo an extension that would have allowed it to produce a crop valued at €1.4 million every eight weeks. This case alone makes it clear that those supplying the drug are confident of a customer demand sufficient to meet an extensive supply.

Cannabis is a drug that is viewed by far too many as commonplace and relatively harmless. A user may smoke cannabis “just to relax”, but its side effects can be anything but unwinding. Potential short-time effects include panic, paranoia and loss of co-ordination, while long-term effects can include high blood pressure, respiratory problems and infertility. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal also showed that the use of cannabis increases the risk of developing psychosis.

Another risk that many cannabis users often choose to ignore is that of being charged with drug offences. A quick look in any local newspaper will prove that it’s not just dealers who get charged. Possession of the drug can be met with fines ranging from a maximum of €381 for a first offence to €1,270 and a possible prison sentence of up to twelve months for a third.

Cannabis is a force to be reckoned with, so whether you’re a politician, potential SU president or an average recreational smoker, don’t run the risk of underestimating its dangers.