Part of my day job involves delivering drugs awareness talks, workshops and programmes to youth groups and school going young people. Every now and then I get asked to provide workshops for parents or other groups of adults. Recently I was invited to give a drug awareness talk to a group adults who are members of a large national voluntary organization. The organizer of the talk, a very eager gentleman, had also invited members of the local community Gardaí [Irish Police] to give an input at the talk and bring with them their 'drug box' to show the volunteers various types of illicit drugs.
I have had the pleasure of working with the Community Gardaí in the past and was familiar with their 'drug box', however, on this occasion their array of substances had been updated and added to. The drug box contains real samples of nearly every illicit drug currently available; hash, weed, cocaine, rock cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and a variety of other substances and paraphernalia. I was impressed by the range of recent additions – 'Bulldog' (mephedrone), 'Blue Ghosts' and other varieties of ecstasy.
The talk began with me delivering a snazzy little slide show presentation, outlining how drugs work, various illicit substances, signs and symptoms of use and harmful effects on the body etc. The crowd were interested and engaged, regularly asking questions and laughing at my odd joke here and there. It was going well. Eventually, my presentation came to an end, the two Gardaí took their que and stood up. The crowd's attention eagerly shifted to the two blue uniforms. The contents of their drug box had been attractively displayed before them. It was like watching children on Christmas morning. The audience was full of bright anticipatory eyes and there was lots of nervous excited laughing. The two Gardaí proceeded to distribute the contents of their drug box among the crowd.
The scene I witnessed before me was like a cross between The Wire and Father Ted. I anxiously watched a group of 50 adults carefully examining bags of cocaine, LSD, ecstasy and so on. They were excited, very excited. To my amazement I saw people actually smelling bags of cannabis and cocaine. I had images of Scarface running through my mind. I was watching people handle a range of psychoactive substances, then touch their face, rub their eyes and scratch their nose etc. The Gardaí were happily answering questions and talking to participants ... however, I was freaking out! My worry got the best of me and I announced that people were to ensure they washed their hands after handling the bags of drugs! The crowd loved the show and tell. Once the drugs were carefully returned to their case and all accounted for, a slew of questions proceeded. The Gardaí worked the crowd, answering questions, providing helpful advise and afterwords everyone enjoyed a cup of tea and chocolate biscuit in the canteen. It was surreal and comic, and I was still worrying about whether people had washed their hands!
What I found really amazing was the casualness of the whole situation. Regular law abiding people delighted at the opportunity to hold a 9 inch block of hash or an 8 once bag of rock cocaine! Where was the condemnation and consternation from these adults? Drugs are supposed to be frowned upon, right? Surely members of the audience should have been scornfully shaking their head, tutting and looking concerned whilst handling these psychoactive substances? You might say it was just that particular group of adults, however, I think it was an indication of something more.
Many people might involuntary gulp at the sight of a Gardaí approaching or beckoning you to stop whilst driving, even though you have done nothing wrong! In this situation the presence of the Gardaí (and probably my presence also) offered reassurance and legitimized the situation. It helped that the two Community Gardaí were both very approachable and friendly. Maybe the tone of my presentation and odd joke here and there had put people at ease. Maybe more importantly the powerful symbolic Gardaí uniform in this context provided participants with sense of trust and safety. Participants knew they were not going to come to harm while looking at these substances and were not anxiously looking over their shoulder for dodgy characters, such as, 'Nidge Delaney' or the likes.
The behaviour of this group of adults may also be explained by what many sociologists like Howard Parker call 'normalization'. According to this theory there has been a gradual shift in recent times in how drugs are accommodated in society (albeit certain drugs, namely cannabis). Parker tells us that recreational drug use is becoming increasingly normalized in Western societies, especially among young people. This is part due to the increased availability of drugs and growing trends within youth subcultures. The dance rave culture that emerged in the 1990's and subsequent years was inter-twined with an explosion in recreational drug use. This growth of recreational drug use at these raves contributed to the development of new cultural norms emerging among young people.
So was the incident a perfect example of how drugs are increasingly becoming normalized? Do the attitudes and behaviours displayed by the audience demonstrate that older theories of 'deviance' and 'outsiders' are obsolete or out dated? Is recreational drug use much less 'deviant' or 'shameful' today than in the past?
Or is it a case of ... too many people watching too much Love Hate?
© Clay Darcy, November 2013.