Local radio host Neil Prendeville found himself in a shameful situation on a late-night flight from London to Cork two weeks ago. He exposed himself as the plane was taking off and then began masturbating. Aer Lingus cabin crew had to stop him.
Prendeville apologised emotionally on Cork's 96FM, after The Examiner published details on Wednesday.
"I have no recollection whatsoever. I'm in shock, you know, I really am," Prendeville had said in a voice message to a female passenger's phone. "I took some Nurofen Plus alright, I know that, for my neck. And as you know, with me anyway there was pints and wine and stuff and Jesus I don't know where I'd begin to make it up to you."
His humiliation went national when RTE replayed the clip on the Pat Kenny Show and discussed it with reporter Eoin English and Neil's solicitor Gerald Keane.
English said that Prendeville was sitting in the front row between two other passengers, facing two air hostesses, when he exposed himself. Aer Lingus is sending its report to gardai.
Prendeville's alcohol-and-codeine cocktail is perfectly legal in Ireland and the UK, however. It's one of many mind-altering medications sold over the counter in pubs and chemists, with a smile from bar staff and a mild warning about the Nurofen Plus. Like Solpadeine, Nurofen Plus contains chemical strings that the body mimics as morphine, which is addictive. Alcohol is the elephant in the room.
On Monday, The Lancet published new research that challenges the good-cop/bad-cop basis of current drugs policy and looks objectively at what does constitute harm. Professor David Nutt's findings assessed legal and illegal drugs on the basis of harm to others, as well as harm to self.
The overall harm done by alcohol (72 points) was so much worse than harm by heroin (55), crack cocaine (54) or nicotine (26) that it's obviously time to start thinking outside the box. If we dare.
Nutt is the curiously named former government drug adviser to Gordon Brown, who was sacked for questioning the politics of drugs classification. He'd argued that the way it was done bore little relation to the harm different drugs actually did. This was such heresy that the Home Secretary Alan Johnson wouldn't stomach it.
In Britain, Ireland and the US, politicians have grown careers by waging wars on illegal drugs and, arguably, they've grown inter-gang warfare in the process. Media thrive on gangland feuds, too, which leaves ordinary citizens with the assumption that illegal drugs are more harmful than legal ones and that the problem is at someone else's back door.
It's comforting to point the finger at people outside society's walls rather than look within, of course. This is especially true in Ireland, where governments, vintners and even sports organisations have resisted calls to regulate alcohol advertising and marketing more sensitively.
This light-touch regulation spawns not only Europe's biggest binge-drinking culture but a tolerance of public disorder, from street fighting to vomiting and urinating, in towns and cities every night of the week.
Then there's the private suffering of legal misuse, less visible because of its personal nature. Rape, sexual assault, relationship breakdown. The recent report into the Roscommon neglect case showed how the parents misused alcohol daily.
The State can't always protect people from the harm they do to themselves, but it can try to minimise the harm they do to others. Acknowledgment is the first step.
Nutt's Lancet study examines hard evidence, such as deaths from drink-driving, alcohol-enabled violence and so on, and compares them to the effects of various drugs such as cannabis, prescription medications and (magic) mushrooms.
His criteria measure individual harm in terms of risk of death, dependence, mental impairment and injury, as well as social harm such as family conflict, economic costs and damage to community bonds.
So while heroin is always more immediately harmful than alcohol (it's toxic as well as addictive), alcohol ranks higher because of its social reach -- even when you factor in the effects of gangland crime related to the illegal drugs trade.
"Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm," Nutt's team said.
"They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harms a valid and necessary public health strategy."
The multi-billion drinks industry is lobbying Government to reduce alcohol taxes in the Budget, so as to combat a decline in sales. With jobs in the hospitality industry under threat, the Government may want to listen. But should it?
The point, I think, is not to minimise the risks of drugs such as heroin but to underline the lethal effects of alcohol misuse. This risk is masked by glamorous advertising and by consistent political failure to resist the industry's power.
The fact that drugs are legal doesn't mean they won't do harm, as Prendeville and his unfortunate co-travellers saw. My guess is that he would have refused outright if someone asked him to shoot up heroin at the airport.
While he's responsible for his own consumption, he isn't alone in underestimating the dangers of legal drugs. They're shocking.
November 06 2010
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