Police, prison officers and politicians are standing side-by-side with drug users to call for law reform. They say the current practice of jailing people for personal use and possession instead of focusing on their health and safety leads to unacceptable outcomes: lives lost and lives ruined. But it’s hard to get your head around the idea that making drugs more easily available could actually reduce the risks.
So here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions from Australia21 Director Dr Alex Wodak, who was Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney from 1982 to 2012 and is now the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.
1 Why does Australia need to change its drug policy?
Australia’s approach to illicit drugs is seriously broken. It cannot be fixed by some minor tweaking.
For over half a century our governments have relied heavily on law enforcement to curb the drug trade. But in that time the illicit drug trade in Australia has just kept getting bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous. We now have many more different types of drugs and more dangerous drugs than we ever had. During the last half-century we have had increasing drug-related deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence.
Senior police now warn that Australia cannot arrest and imprison its way out of our serious drug problems. ‘Tough on drugs’ turned out to be an expensive way of making a bad problem into a much worse problem. For example, cracking down on botanical cannabis gave us synthetic cannabis which is much more risky. In the US, trying to stop the use of powder cocaine led to crack. The more we push down on the drug trade, the worse it gets.
2 Isn’t liberalising our drug laws just going to mean skyrocketing drug use?
Despite what many people think intuitively, the evidence from numerous studies is that drug laws have minimal or no effect on levels of illicit drug use. Punitive laws do not reduce drug use and liberal approaches do not increase drug use. But even if liberalising our drug laws did slightly increase illicit drug use, this might still be worth accepting if at the same time there was a huge decrease in some of the collateral damage from our drug laws. We should primarily focus on the harm that drugs do rather than just concentrate on reducing or eliminating their use.
3 How is handing out cocaine, heroin and ice to addicts going to work?
Australia should not – and never will – allow 1kg blocks of 100% pure cocaine, heroin or ice to be sold at a supermarket checkout. The public would never accept that, nor should they ever accept this extremist laissez-faire approach. The opposite extreme is prohibiting all use of illicit drugs and, by default, ensuring criminals run the black market (with zero government control). What we need to do is find the ‘Goldilocks’ spot right in the middle: drugs that are attractive and available enough to satisfy demand while being tolerable to the public allowing politics to still work.
Australia had regulated and taxed edible opium until 1906. In the USA, Coca Cola contained cocaine until 1903. So we need to carefully select which drugs will be sold and have them available in small quantities and at low concentration. Most people who use drugs use small quantities infrequently and get into little or no trouble.
Drug treatment could look after people with the heaviest drug habits who are at highest risk and who probably also do the bulk of the recruiting.
When we start trying to regulate drugs, we shouldn’t start at the most difficult end but at the least difficult end with drugs like cannabis or MDMA (‘ecstasy’). Eight states in the USA have approved taxing and regulating cannabis and a number of countries are committed to going down this road soon (including Canada in 2018). Regulated cannabis packets could be required to have health warnings, help-seeking information and consumer product information. Proof of age at purchase could be a requirement (like alcohol) and thereby reduce sales to under age people. Revenue could be used in part to help fund drug treatment.
4 Surely it’s just a matter of educating people about how dangerous these illegal drugs really are?
At best, drug education has only a brief and modest benefit. But sometimes drug education has actually increased drug use. Drug education is not the panacea that many people believe. We should of course provide drug education provided that it’s realistic, aims to reduce harm rather than just eliminate use, and involves young people in its design and implementation.
5 Why not get serious about zero tolerance of drugs and have a proper crack down?
The illicit drug trade is too big and too profitable for law enforcement to have any lasting impact. Even worse, the more law enforcement pressure applied to the illicit drug trade, the more profitable that trade becomes. Increased profits probably increase the recruitment of more would-be sellers.
In the USA, President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971 and America has since spent trillions of dollars on this war and thrown millions of its citizens in jail. But drug use and drug harm has continued at very high levels. The UN estimated that the global drug trade had an annual turnover of $US 320 billion in 2003. That was equivalent at that time to more than half Australia’s economy.
Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in 2014 that ‘the war on drugs is not a war that Australia could win and it is a war that Australia could lose’.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, representing about 40 former Presidents and Prime Ministers, argues that global drug prohibition has failed and more effective approaches are needed based on evidence, while also respecting human rights. The criminal justice system should of course be involved when people who have used drugs harm others.
6 Don’t we already have enough problems with Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco and now you want to create Big Cannabis?
Alcohol and tobacco certainly cause many times more harm to the community than all the illegal drugs put together. The alcohol beverage industry is very effective at blocking reforms that might help the community but reduce the income of the drinks industry.
The tobacco industry used to be just as powerful as the alcohol industry but in recent decades has slowly been forced to accept some major reforms that have hugely benefitted the community. The fall in smoking levels in the community was only possible because cigarettes were legal and therefore could be strictly regulated.
Some painful lessons have been learnt from the mistakes made with policy on legal drugs. All advertising should be banned and any marketing and promotion strictly controlled. Somehow, donations to political parties have to be prevented. The question is not whether cannabis is harmless or very toxic but whether the harms of cannabis are more likely to be reduced if the drug is regulated by the government or by criminals, corrupt police or outlaw motorcycle gangs.
7 Are any other countries changing their approach to illicit drugs?
The international drug control system has been slowly unraveling for some time. About forty countries have decriminalised in part or in full the use and possession of personal quantities of drugs.
Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of quantities of drugs consistent with personal consumption in 2001. Benefits were huge and negatives minimal. New Zealand began regulating certain new psychoactive substances in 2013. In 2012, majorities in Colorado and Washington states in the USA voted to tax and regulate cannabis and this policy was implemented in both states in 2014.
In Australia, the decriminalisation of drugs at a state level is far more extensive than many realise.
8 Surely Australia has to follow the international drug treaties that we have signed?
Like other countries, Australia is faced with the dilemma of faithfully complying with international treaties or acting sensibly in the national interest. If Australia does this, we will not be the first country to breach the treaties. Bolivia was allowed to leave one of the drug treaties in 2011 and then return in 2013 minus a paragraph that was deeply resented in that country.
9 Should Australia decriminalise drugs?
Australia already has (to some extent) decriminalised the use and possession of quantities of drugs consistent with personal consumption. But we should go much further.
Decriminalisation still leaves drugs to the unregulated black market which is responsible for much of the harm currently attributed to drugs. So, for example, heroin prescribed by doctors used under medical supervision has many benefits and few adverse effects. Conversely, street heroin distributed by criminals is often very damaging to people who use the drug, their family and their community.
So what we need to do is try to regulate as much of the drug market as we can while recognsing that we will never be able to regulate all of it. We already regulate some parts of the drug market such as the methadone/buprenorphine treatment system, needle and syringe programs and Sydney’s drug consumption room. Major expansion and improvement of the drug treatment system is critical to the success of drug law reform.
10 What are the first steps needed in drug law reform?
The threshold step for drug law reform is re-defining drugs as primarily a health and social issue. This means that a major investment is required in health and social interventions if we are to reduce deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence.
People with drug problems need help, not punishment. They also need help to reintegrate back into the community. Some will need education and training with the aim of getting a job. Many will need drug treatment. Marginalised and homeless people using drugs may need a drug consumption room where they can start a process of engagement that leads to drug treatment and healthcare. Young people attending music dance events should be able to have their pills tested.
Law enforcement should keep its budget but be offered the opportunity to invest in areas where the public gets a much better return on the investment. Australia has to stop seeing this issue through the lens of law enforcement.
For decades Australia has been debating its drug policy. There is now growing recognition that our current approach has been a dismal failure. An increasing number of Australians now look for vision and leadership on this issue from our politicians. We know that change is more likely and more sustainable if there is support across political parties. Standing still is no longer an option.