Drugs are a health and social issue. Why do we make it a law enforcement battle? | Alex Wodak | Opinion


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

Australia adopted drug prohibition slowly over decades but implementation intensified after the commonwealth government approved three international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988). Governments have relied heavily on law enforcement. According to a 2013 study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, almost two thirds (64%) of $1.6bn spent by Australian governments in response to illicit drugs in 2009/10 was allocated to law enforcement with 23% going to drug treatment, 9% to prevention and 2% to harm reduction.

During the last half-century, Australia’s drug market expanded and became increasingly dangerous. The price of street drugs fell substantially 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.

In the last decade or more a growing number of senior politicians and law enforcement leaders began to acknowledge the failure of drug law enforcement to control the drug market or reduce drug problems. The (then) prime minister Tony Abbott admitted in April 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 poor in rich countries like Australia, they have been even worse for people in many underprivileged countries where drugs are cultivated or transited. In Colombia, Afghanistan or Mexico, life for many has become almost unbearable as critical civic institutions were eroded steadily.

The political elite has long known that this criminal justice approach was 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 been declared 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 has been continued despite its terrible outcomes because bad policy has been good politics.

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 Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Quaker and Unitarian Universalist voices advocating for 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 will be redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than only a law enforcement battle.

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 have 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. But drugs in Portugal are still supplied by the black market. After Colorado began taxing and regulating recreational cannabis in 2014, teen cannabis use decreased.

Drug treatment should be expanded to meet demand and improved to the same level as other forms of healthcare. Much more emphasis is needed on social support. Life for young people has to be sufficiently attractive and the future sufficiently promising so that a brief chemical vacation becomes less alluring. Australia will continue to have a huge drug problem as 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 reintegration.

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 regulation of parts of the drug market. It will never be possible to regulate the entire drug market. 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. Eight of the 50 US states comprising more than 20% of the national population have approved the regulation of recreational cannabis. In 2018, California, the world’s 6th biggest economy, and Canada, the first G7 country to do so, will start taxing and regulating cannabis. Few drugs are suitable for control by commercial retail sale. Some drugs may require prescription control, as methadone does today. Other compromise drugs will need to be identified which 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 and economically feasible.

Educating young people and the community about drugs will remain part of the national response but the community and our politicians 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 establish. Change will inevitably be slow and incremental. Mistakes will be made but continuing our failed and futile policy indefinitely because it works politically should not be an option.

Dr Alex Wodak AM is president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

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