Drop prohibition to advance in winning war on drugs

assorted thrill pills in hand image www.druglinks.info

“These four men are lucky they didn’t end up in the morgue.”

A single news story on Good Friday showed everything wrong with the way Australia fights the war on drugs.

We blame users rather than help them. We make criminals out of young fun seekers rather than protect them from harm. And we leave to organised crime a massive industry which sucks billions from governments, rather than policing a business which could be regulated and taxed.

On Friday, four young men on a Sydney Harbour party cruise ended up in intensive care after apparently overdosing on illicit drugs, thought to be ecstasy; although how anyone would know what they took is beyond me. Drugs don’t come packaged with lists of ingredients.

The police took three sniffer dogs to the wharf before the boat left for an afternoon dance party on water, run by an outfit called Dirty Funken Beats

Having to spend any time on a boat “pumping disgusting levels of bass” sounds more like a sentence to be endured with tranquillisers than a party to be enjoyed with ecstasy, but to each their own. In any event, the police operation didn’t stop the drugs.

The police marine commander, Superintendent Joe McNulty, said: “These four men are lucky they didn’t end up in the morgue.

“It is the young people in the community we are concerned about, and their access to drugs, and their choice. There is no control over where these drugs were made; it is organised crime supplying these drugs.”

All of which is true. Taking illicit drugs is about as good for you as, I don’t know, getting blind drunk on whisky. Taking ecstasy, MDMA, ice, cocaine or heroin is hardly a good strategy for optimal health. Buying a substance on the word of a crook doesn’t come with a consumer money-back guarantee, although if anything should come with such assurance, it’s a mind-altering substance.

One thing is clear from the current strategy in the war on drugs: prohibition is a ruinously expensive failure.

As former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer wrote in 2012: “The reality is that, contrary to frequent assertions, drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market. This is true in most countries in the world. In Australia, the police are better resourced than ever, better trained than ever, more effective than ever and yet their impact on the drug trade, on any objective assessment, has been minimal.”

The intention of prohibition – making drug consumers criminals – is to stop consumption, but it doesn’t work. Because it doesn’t, prohibition effectively protects the criminal cartels which deal drugs: no tax, no costly safety standards, no workers’ compensation for those in your distribution network.

Those dealers who get caught are usually mules or street-level addicts. Prohibition fills prisons with them and clogs the courts and does 10-fifths of bugger all to reduce addiction.

Yet it is so embedded in the political culture of Australia, the US, and international law, that we ignore sensible and proven alternative ways to reduce the harm to users while bankrupting the murderous criminal syndicates who supply them.

Portugal decriminalised personal possession over a decade ago. It’s still illegal but the sanctions aren’t criminal. The reforms came with better treatment, so conclusions are only valid for the whole package. What is clear, is there was no explosion in drug use. The rates of continued and problematic drug use dropped.

Deaths because of drug use dropped from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012, a report compiled by Transform said.

Drug use in Portugal remains below the European average.

Plenty of other places have effectively decriminalised possession of small amounts of cannabis for some people, including NSW, South Australia and the ACT. In some South American countries, laws banning possession have been struck down as unconstitutional.

The recent moves in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington state to not just decriminalise but legalise one drug, cannabis, show the radical but sensible way forward.
The law changed in Colorado on January 1, 2014, so it’s too soon to draw many long-term conclusions, but crime rates and traffic fatalities have both decreased slightly. That may have nothing to do with legalisation. However, the fears of both increasing as everyone got baked haven’t been realised.

Australia should ditch the obsession with prohibition and at least try to fight the war on drugs properly: as a health issue, not a legal one.

If you legalise drug use, you can regulate and tax it.

As that notable journal for hippies, The Economist, concluded last year: “By legalising cannabis from cultivation to retail, [Uruguay, Colorado and Washington] have snatched the industry away from crooks and given it to law-abiding entrepreneurs. Unlike the mafia, they pay tax and obey rules on where, when and to whom they can sell their products. Money saved on policing weed can be spent on chasing real criminals or on treatment for addicts.”

There is no doubt police and politicians across the country care about the health of people who use drugs. But their strategy needs to drastically change to win their war.

Legalisation is not defeatist, nor does it make drug consumption either compulsory or desirable. But it just might have helped those four young men on Friday, and many others like them.

Tim Dick is a Sydney lawyer.


Henry Sapiecha

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