The great drug debate (Part 1): Why Australia needs drug law reform


Read “The great drug debate (Part 2): Against drug legalisation”

Drug policy has been debated fiercely in Australia for decades because of the growing recognition that the punitive approach has failed and cannot succeed.

Australia adopted drug prohibition slowly over many decades but implementation intensified after the Commonwealth government approved three international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988). Governments relied heavily on law enforcement. A 2013 study found that almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the $1.6 billion spent by Australian governments in response to illicit drugs in 2009/10 was allocated to law enforcement, with 23 per cent going to drug treatment, 9 per cent to prevention and 2 per cent to harm reduction.

During the last half-century, Australia’s drug market expanded and became increasingly dangerous. The price of street drugs fell while their availability remained high. Drug-related deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence increased. For example, heroin overdose deaths in Australia increased 55-fold between 1964 and 1997.

A failed policy

In the last decade or so a growing number of senior politicians and law enforcement leaders have begun to acknowledge the failure of drug law enforcement to control the drug market or reduce drug problems. As Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Then-prime minister Tony Abbott admitted in 2014 that, “[the war on drugs] is . . . not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose.”

Although the results of drug prohibition have been dubious in rich countries like Australia, they have been calamitous for people in many poor countries where drugs are cultivated or transited. In countries like Colombia, Afghanistan or Mexico, life for many became almost unbearable as critical civic institutions were seriously eroded by organised crime, bankrolled by tsunamis of illicit drug money.

The political elite has long known that this criminal justice approach to drugs is doomed. In 1989, the all-party Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority concluded: “All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.” In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, comprising former and current presidents and prime ministers, noted that “the global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.”

Commercial organisations as unsuccessful as drug prohibition would have declared themselves bankrupt long ago. These days the intellectual debate about drug policy is virtually over. Few experts still try to defend drug prohibition. The debate has now entered a political phase. Australia’s drug policy continues, despite the terrible outcomes, because bad policy is good politics.

The way forward

Now religious groups in Australia and other countries are also advocating for drug law reform. In the USA, “Clergy for a New Drug Policy” includes diverse Christian, Jewish and Muslim voices advocating drug law reform.

Our future drug policy will have to be much more informed by evidence, more respectful of human rights and more concerned to provide a reasonable return on taxpayers’ investments. The aims should be minimising drug-related deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence, with benefits flowing to people who use drugs, their families and the community.

The threshold step required is redefining drug use as primarily a health and social issue, rather than a criminal one.

Sanctions should be reduced or eliminated for people found in possession of personal quantities of drugs. The assumption so confidently and frequently asserted that drug use must inevitably increase after drug law reform is not supported by evidence. In fact, drug use and harm continued to increase over the decades of drug prohibition. After Portugal decriminalised drugs and improved drug treatment in 2001, overdose deaths, HIV, crime and problematic drug use fell. After Colorado began taxing and regulating recreational cannabis in 2014, teen cannabis use decreased.

“Commercial organisations as unsuccessful as drug prohibition would have declared themselves bankrupt long ago.”

Drug treatment should be expanded to meet demand and improved to the same high level as other forms of healthcare. Much more emphasis is needed on social support. Life for young people has to be attractive and the future promising so that brief chemical vacations becomes less alluring. Australia will continue to have a huge drug problem so long as many young Australians believe they face a dismal future. People struggling with a severe drug problem often need assistance with education, training and employment to encourage their social re-integration.

As much of the drug supply as possible should be regulated, notwithstanding the political and other difficulties of achieving this. Needle syringe programs, medically supervised injecting centres and methadone treatment are examples of contemporary regulation of parts of the drug market. Regulating the entire drug market will never be possible. The aim should be to improve on our current situation rather than try to achieve a drug policy utopia.

Until 1906, edible opium was taxed and regulated in Australia, providing revenue of £60,000 per year. Until 1903 in USA, Coca Cola contained cocaine. Nine of the 50 US states, comprising more than 20 per cent of the national population, have approved or started regulating recreational cannabis, including California, the world’s sixth biggest economy. Canada will become the first G7 country to tax and regulate cannabis on July 1, 2018. Few drugs are suitable for control by commercial retail sale. Some drugs will require prescription control, as methadone does today. Other compromise drugs will need to be identified that are acceptable to the community, sufficiently attractive to people seeking a drug experience and safe enough when provided in small quantities and low concentration.

Our current drug policy works well politically but is unsustainable because of the powerful market forces it generates. Our future drug policy will have to be both politically as well as economically feasible.

Educating young people and the community about drugs will remain part of the national response, but we will need to have much more realistic expectations regarding the modest gains achievable.

Drug prohibition took many decades to establish. A post-prohibition drug policy will also take many decades to develop. Change will inevitably be slow and incremental with some mistakes unavoidable. Continuing our failed and futile policy indefinitely because it works politically should not be an option.

Alex Wodak heads up an alcohol and drug rehabilitation service, pioneered syringe exchanges and injecting rooms in Australia and is the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. He argues that tough “law and order” responses to drugs have failed and that we need to focus on social and medical solutions.

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