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Across the world, many countries that experience issues like rising crime rates, domestic violence, unemployment, and even depression look for something to blame for these problems. Over the years there have been cases where authorities, in these countries, target illicit drugs and illegal use of pharmaceuticals as the cause of their problems. Because drug use causes such damage to addicts it easily becomes a scapegoat for wider social issues and conflicts between different racial, religious and national groups.
In the United States, perhaps one of the most notorious examples of an illicit drug becoming a scapegoat was the situation with marijuana in the early 1900s. This stemmed back to the start of the 20th century when marijuana was mainly used by minority groups such as Mexican farm labourers, blacks from the southern states and Filipino immigrants.
The 1910 Mexican revolution led to thousands of Mexicans fled to the US. The large wealthy farmers welcomed these people who were willing to work for low wages and local businesses made money because the migrants spent most of what they earned. (Marentes C & Marentes C.P. 1996)
However the townspeople and small farmers weren’t so happy about the immigration. Small family farmers were driven out of business because they couldn’t compete with large farms that had cut their costs by paying cheap wages. Caught in the middle, the Mexican migrants became the focus for the economic conflict between business and labour. (Abel E L, 1980)
The Mexicans’ use of marijuana was an easy target and racist politicians, in the farming areas, attacked the migrants as ‘un-American’ and spread the myth that the use of marihuana caused insanity violence and crime. In 1911 the American consul in Mexico wrote a letter saying that marihuana “causes the smoker to become exceedingly pugnacious and to run amuck without discrimination.” (Richard J Bonnie, 1974, p.221) Journalists who wrote articles with shock headlines such as the ‘Marijuana Menace’ and ‘Killer Weed’ also encouraged these myths.
Jerome L. Himmelstein argues that the Killer Weed image got created out of views that were held in society about the drugs original perceived users. Mexican labourers and other lower strata groups. These people were stereotyped as violent/enraged. This idea for marijuana continued until the user group changed during the 1960s, to the middle class youth. (Himmelstein, J.L., 1938, 7(1):35-62)
In this way marijuana quickly became the popular scapegoat for the troubles of poverty, racism, and discrimination. The first states to outlaw the use of marijuana were the ones with large numbers of migrant workers from Mexico. California prohibited the possession of marijuana in 1907 and later included it in laws against hard narcotics, such as heroin and cocaine. In 1914, the town of El Paso outlawed the possession or sale of marihuana. The law wasn’t really designed to protect the locals but rather as a way of making life more difficult for the foreigners who they resented. (Abel E L, 1980)
In the 1960s marijuana again became the scapegoat for a social and cultural problem, this time between generations.
During the sixties many young people rebelled against the lifestyle of their parents. They wore different clothes, grew their hair long and turned to different religions and radical politics. The older generation were shocked by the music they listened to, their sexual attitudes and their use of drugs such as LSD and marijuana.
During this time the claim of marijuana as a ‘Killer Weed’ was replaced by the opposite line of marijuana as a ‘Drop Out Drug’ and in 1965, Time Magazine published an article saying that marijuana ‘now affects users judgement and if used daily will dull a student’s initiative’. (Time Magazine 1965, vol. 85: 49)
Writing about this period in ‘The Social Construction of Drug Scares’ Craig Reinarman says medical scientists were drawn into blaming drugs for the behaviour of youth because the dominant groups in society felt threatened by the younger generation’s rejection of conventional values. (Reinarman C (1994) 14:143)
This rejection of authority came to head over the US war with North Vietnam. A large number of young Americans demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and this led to more conflict with the government authorities that wanted to neutralise the growing anti-war movement. The FBI often arrested protest leaders and activists on marijuana charges.
In 1970, in response to what was seen as a growing drug problem, the US government passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.
Over the last 30 years Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, has experienced an epidemic of heroin usage, and the problem continues today. Heroin first began flooding into the northern and southern part of Dublin in the late 1970s and since then heroin has become symbolically associated with violent crime, public health problems, massive unemployment and urban decay.
For nearly 40 years the use of heroin has been responsible for a lot of the petty crime in Dublin. Addicts are involved in muggings, robbery of houses and prostitution as try to get money to buy the drug. But as the use of heroin criminal gangs moved into Dublin and this led to more violent crime, including many murders, as they fought to control the drug trade. A lot of the crime was between gangs but many innocent people were caught in the crossfire ‘ the most well known was Veronica Guerin, a journalist who was investigating drug crime, who was shot by criminals while stopped at a traffic light. (Maggie O’Kane 2000)
Ireland has seen a huge increase in the number of heroin related deaths over last 30 years. According to a report in the European Journal of Public Health this is most noticeable in younger age groups where, for example, it rose from less than 1% in 1980 to 23% of 15’19 year old male deaths in 1997. Many heroin users in Dublin also die from diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis caused by sharing needles. (Kelleher M J A, Keown P J, O’Gara C, Keaney F, Farrell M and Strang J, 2003/2004, vol. 15(6), p.589-592)
In the late nineties unemployment rates in the disadvantaged areas of Dublin were estimated to be between 33% and peak at 45%. (O’Gorman A – Illicit Drug Use In Dublin) However, in some areas this rate was as high as 55% – over three times the average for all of Ireland.
Many of the people who turned to heroin in the eighties and nineties lived in run down flats and as they spent more money on heroin the areas became even more dirty and miserable. As a result, many people who had lived in these areas for years and who were the source of a sense of community, moved out to different parts of the city. Often the empty flats were then used for temporary housing of homeless people, making the problem even worse. (Loughran H and McCann M E 2007, Newsletter of the Alcohol and Drug Research Unit, Issue 21)
In Dublin it’s clear that heroin use is closely tied to the city’s problems with crime, public health, massive unemployment and run down housing. However the real problem affecting most heroin users in Ireland is extreme poverty.
Last year Belfast Telegraph reported ‘the level of persistent poverty in Northern Ireland children is more than double that of those in Great Britain’ and said that 20% of families in Northern Ireland experience persistent poverty compared to a 10% in Great Britain. (Belfast Telegraph, 2009) A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) blamed ‘high levels of unemployment, disability, lower wages and poor quality part-time jobs’ for the high levels of poverty. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2009)
Heroin addicts are the victims of this poverty and the use of the drug should not become the scapegoat for the problem. Poverty has been a major problem in Dublin for a long time. In the early 1900s it’s estimated that a quarter of families living in one room. (Lambert T, ‘A Brief History of Dublin, Ireland’) Heroin might be the thing that pushes people further into poverty but it wasn’t the original cause of poverty in Ireland.
Heroin is also not the reason for the high levels of disadvantage included the fact that 31% of the working age population isn’t in paid work. Former Ireland international rugby player Gerry McLoughlin spoke out on the issues in Ireland saying the government had poor organisation in combating the drug epidemic. It seems to him that the real issue wasn’t the Heroin, but abysmal efforts and moves made by Ireland’s government to fix issues of poverty, increasing crime and failing aid. All of which led to the drug usage. (Cusack J, 2008)
“There are all these people in quangos who are supposed to be dealing with this, but we can see nothing being done. There is no treatment or rehab centre in Limerick. We see all these people — politicians included — in their plush, posh offices doing nothing. They are out of touch with the suffering of people on the ground.” (McLoughlin G and Cusack J, 2008)
In the eyes of GARDAI (Garda S’och’na na h’ireann – “Guardians of the Peace (of Ireland)) police, Heroin is seen as the drug of economic recession, as back in the 1980s, the drug took hold of the working class during economic failure. (Cusack J, 2008)
Illicit drugs are a massive problem in many countries but in cases such as America and Ireland the use of drugs was made a scapegoat for social and cultural problems that had many other causes.
Abel E L, (1980), ‘Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years: Reefer Racism’, Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/11.htm , Accessed 24 April 2010
Cusack Jim (2008). ‘Gardai fear epidemic of heroin in rural areas’, The Independant ‘ National News
Himmelstein, J.L. (1938) ‘From Killer Weed to Drop Out Drug’, Contemporary Crises, 7(1):35-62
Kelleher M J A, Keown P J, O’Gara C, Keaney F, Farrell M and Strang J, 2003/2004, ‘Dying for heroin: the increasing opioid-related mortality in the Republic of Ireland, 1980’1999’, European Journal of Public Health, vol. 15(6), p.589-592
Lambert T, ‘A Brief History of Dublin, Ireland’, http://www.localhistories.org/dublin.html , Accessed 1 May 2010
Loughran H and McCann M E (2007) ‘A community drugs study’, Newsletter of the Alcohol and Drug Research Unit, Issue 21
Marentes C & Marentes C.P., (1996) ‘The first migrant workers’ http://www.farmworkers.org/immigrat.html Accessed 23 April 2010
New Policy Institute 2009 ‘Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
O’Gorman A, ‘Illicit Drug Use In Dublin’ http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/4272/1/791-0739.pdf , Accessed 29 April 2010
O’Kane M (2000), ‘The woman who knew too much’ The Guardian,
Reinarman C (1994) ‘The Social Construction of Drug Scares’, Wadsworth Publishing Co., Chpt. 14: p143
Richard J Bonnie, (1974), ‘The marihuana conviction;: A history of marihuana prohibition in the United States’, University Press of Virginia; 1st edition p.221
Time Magazine (1965) ‘Education: The Pot Problem’, Time vol. 85: 49
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