UCD’s war on the War on Drugs

Having officially endorsed the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) in November 2017, Nathan Young wonders whether the Union is doing enough for drug activism and harm reduction.

Ever since Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, zero-tolerance has been the philosophy of lawmakers and law enforcers world wide. Almost fifty years later, more and more people are starting to see this approach as an abject failure, leaving more and more people behind bars without any clear evidence that public health is benefitting. Correlation between quantifiable measurements, such as rates of addiction or HIV infections through needle sharing, and poverty rates are far stronger than between said measurements and policing. The illegality of most drugs poses a greater public health risk, as people suffering from addiction are less likely to seek help, and as only unregulated and unscrupulous criminals deal drugs, they are far more likely to be spiked or contaminated with any number of substances.

Of course, the more historically aware reader knows that while the War on Drugs may be a public health disaster, its true aim was criminalising civil rights and anti-war activists. To this end, the war on drugs has been incredibly successful, not only in silencing hippies and black activists, but also in creating a method for racialised police power to be maintained despite movements towards equality. In Ireland, about 30% of the adult population have taken illicit substances at some point according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). Among students, however, the number is far higher. According to a survey published by the Health Research Board, a body that works under the Department of Health, a whopping 82% of students have tried illegal drugs at least once.

With this context in mind, it’s beyond appropriate that the student activists in UCD are seeking to get the law changed, and to provide the harm reduction resources that the state and society at large look down upon with contempt. The Students’ Union officially voted to recognise the UCD chapter of the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) in November of 2017 as campaign group, under the jurisdiction of the Campaigns and Communications Officer. While that role was vacant at the time due to Barry Murphy successfully running for president in the wake of Katie Ascough’s impeachment, support from other officers seems to have more than made up for it.

Then Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhnaill put a motion to council that his office provide free drug testing which, while not perfect, mean that students who chose to use drugs can be far more discerning about what they put into their bodies. UCDSU are the only SU in the city to provide this service, and it’s rumoured that UCD’s example is being touted by SSDP nationwide to encourage the USI to bring this policy everywhere with tests still available through the Welfare Officer’s office on the SU corridor.

Awareness and information campaigns have also been a major component of UCDSU’s drug policy over the past few years. In 2016 and 2018, information and resources while using drugs was printed in Winging It in UCD handbook. While its absence in the 2017 edition was conspicuous, it didn’t create much public outcry, being overshadowed by the academic year’s events. That year saw the rise of a poster campaign, putting posters in places such as toilet cubicles in venues hosting SU events.

As useful as Winging It might be, most people probably won’t have an issue to hand the first time they decide to try a new drug. Still though, although the poster campaign probably did reach more of the right people, there’s no harm having the information in both places. Incidentally, the most recent edition has more detailed information than the 2016 version. Current Campaigns and Communications Officer Tom Monaghan is clearly a supporter of the cause, having been on the committee last year, and before they were officially recognised, Luke Fitzpatrick had also been a committee member. Current Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett helped organise a panel with the SSDP and the LGBTQ+ society last semester, discussing the phenomena of Chemsex. The SU also provided drug harm reduction information in relation to study drugs in the library stall before Christmas exams this year.

Between harm reduction and campaigning for legal changes, the SU definitely favours the former. This is entirely understandable, as in the short term it’s much easier to see results and potentially save lives. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine either a Fianna Gael or Fianna Faíl Government liberalising drug law as much as student activists might want. There are murmurs from some, including senators Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Lynn Ruane, and the largely irrelevant Green party, that cannabis possession for personal use should be decriminalised. While that would be a nice start, it’s a far cry from an implementation of Portuguese style decriminalisation.

However, student activism seeking national change often begins from a point where the status quo seems immovable, yet the examples of marriage equality, condom availability, and abortion legalisation prove that while change may not be totally affected within any students academic career, it may be affected one day, with thanks to generations of student activists. This isn’t to knock the harm reduction efforts, which are good and necessary, and far better here than in, say, Trinity College, where the SSDP has no recognition in student life and the SU do comparatively little to reduce harm. Ultimately, it’s surprising how much the SU has managed to do on this issue, considering the number of other issues there were last year to focus on including the Repeal the 8th campaign. So long as these campaigns continue, and continue to grow, UCD may well be the safest campus in Ireland to experiment with drugs on. Surely that must be part of some people’s holistic education.