Legalise It

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Andrew Johns on the field.

In the wake of the Andrew Johns affair, calls for an honest debate on drugs by Sydney Morning Herald Opinion Editor Lisa Pryor and columnist Michael Duffy are laudable. But any real alternative needs to be one where Government can place real controls on the drug market and for that mere decriminalisation just won’t cut it.

As a society, we allow individuals to engage in a range of risky behaviour without needing to criminalise them in the understanding that to do so would be counterproductive and cruel. But when it comes to illegal drugs, we demand a completely different response.

Jump out of a helicopter and ski down a near vertical mountain and it’s unlikely you’ll find the police knocking on your door, but smoke a joint in the wrong place and you’re likely to end up in lock up.

Every day people risk their lives through unnecessary and risky activities sunbaking despite the real possibility of death through melanoma, risking death, brain damage and crippling injury through mountain climbing, surfing, and violent contact sports.

Andrew Johns made millions over a decade in a sport with a high risk of life altering injury, and it was repeated neck injuries in the form of a bulging spinal disk that led to his retirement.

Then, recently, we learned that throughout that decade of professional success Johns had used Ecstasy and other drugs.

Ecstasy (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA for short) is a drug listed by the UK Government’s Science and Technology Select Committee as less harmful than the ADD medicine Ritalin commonly prescribed to children, yet it is currently more illegal by weight in NSW than Heroin.

Thanks to tabloid hysteria over a handful of high profile deaths, being found carrying as little as .75 of a gram of the drug can lead to a charge of supply under NSW law. Just two or three tablets, the equivalent of what many users will ingest for personal use on a big night out, may be enough for such a charge and the implications of a conviction can be life shattering.

In fact few deaths have been recorded either in Australia or internationally from actual overdose on MDMA. The bulk of deaths attributed to the drug are a result of people overhydrating by drinking too much water, overheating through overexertion, or using a number of drugs at the same time, where death is a result of an interaction between them.

Others are a result of users, such as Sydney woman Annabelle Catt, being deceived into taking more dangerous substitute drugs that have been passed off as Ecstasy by unscrupulous dealers looking to make a fast profit Australians pay more for Ecstasy than almost any other country in the world.

All these categories of death are easily preventable through better drug education or quality control.

Had Johns, who appears to have been able to manage his use by confining it to the off season and is not known to have committed any crime under the influence of drugs, been caught at the start of his career rather than the end he would most likely be millions of dollars poorer and a washed up has been. In his case at least, a drug conviction would seem to be more damaging than the drug itself.

And Johns’s experience seems to be that of the silent majority of recreational drug users who hold down jobs, pay their taxes and commit few other crimes. For most it is not police intervention but a change in lifestyle such as marriage or the prospect of raising a family which leads them to discontinue their drug use often without need of professional help.

Internationally, criminal laws have demonstrated little effect in reducing rates of drug use even liberal Holland has lower rates of drug use than the United States. In fact, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that in 2006 the largest reason cited by individuals for not buying drugs on a given occasion was that their dealer did not have any (60 to 48 per cent across all drug categories). Fear of Police activity was cited as a deterrent in less than 7 per cent of cases across the board.

But no matter how counterproductive the law and order response is seen to be, it has one thing on its side it’s the devil we know. In comparison, advocates of legalisation have been unable able to articulate how such a policy might work in practice and so it remains an untouchable issue for politicians in comparison to the stop gap approach that is decriminalisation.

But while mere decriminalisation might be suitable for cultivated drugs like marijuana, manufactured drugs such as Ecstasy and others require a more hands on approach by Governments if needless deaths from adulterants and dangerous substitute drugs are to be avoided.

So what might a workable legalisation strategy with the sort of checks and balances that would keep the general public on side actually look like?

Imagine if instead of having to buy drugs of unknown strength at inflated cost from criminals, adult drug users could obtain a licence to purchase drugs from a quality controlled legal source they knew they could trust. After obtaining a letter from a drugs counsellor or GP who had explained the dangers of the drugs they wished to access, a specific photo licence would be issued to them.

Just like a driver’s licence, if users broke the law under the influence they would have points deducted and if an individual demonstrated that they were such a problem user that their licence was revoked, they could find themselves sentenced to a custodial treatment program.

Purchases would be rationed to quantities suitable for personal use only, with users being able to voluntarily restrict their ration even further for set periods to help manage their intake. Onselling to non-licenced users would remain strictly prohibited.

A purpose specific licence shown at every purchase would also present an additional barrier to under 18s obtaining drugs, and users who wished to quit could simply cut up their cards in order to deny themselves access to the program.

Marijuana and most currently used recreational drugs would be sold through pharmacies or purpose specific outlets, while drugs of chronic addiction such as methamphetamine and heroin would be dealt with through a separate highly supervised prescription based program, with addicts obliged to meet regularly with a drugs counsellor.

Drugs would be priced below the current street value to remove the profit from importation and street dealing, and taxi vouchers included in the price of purchase to deter drug driving.

Importantly, Government and health authorities would now have a direct line of communication to every drug user in Australia when disseminating health information and in making users aware of their quitting options.

The billions raised through the program could be put into world’s best practice treatment programs for users when they do decide to quit and drug education and diversionary activities to keep the young away from drugs in the first place. Any remainder would be put into the public health and education systems for the benefit of all.

Other benefits from such a strategy would include the bankrupting of organised crime, denying vital funds to rogue states and terrorist groups, freeing up courts and police to concentrate on more serious offenders, a vast reduction in prison populations and a reduction in crimes of theft as addicts would no longer have a reason to steal to fuel their habits. In addition, thousands of jobs would be created and many addicts would find the stability to return to gainful employment.

Such a policy may seem controversial, but all of its components have already been enacted in some form overseas. Currently all drugs are decriminalised in Spain and Portugal.

Heroin prescription was a national policy in the UK from 1926 until the 70s, when it was replaced with the more politically expedient (but more toxic) methadone. A similar heroin prescription program where addicts pay for their drugs now operates in Switzerland, and other prescription trials are underway in Portugal, Columbia, Holland, Germany and Canada.

The sale of marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and a range of other plant-based highs have been decriminalised in Holland as well.

Since 1999, Benzylpiperazine (BZP) a synthetic drug touted as a substitute for Ecstasy and amphetamine-based drugs has been manufactured and sold legally in New Zealand, though it may be criminalized by the end of this year.

And the legalisation approach comes with some unusual backing.

In 2002, a handful of retired US police officers who’d had their fill of the War on Drugs came together to found an international advocacy group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Five years later, they now count over 5000 serving and retired law enforcement professionals, from county sheriffs all the way up to judges and district attorneys, as members and boast thousands more civilian supporters in over 56 countries worldwide.

Their bureau of over 100 speakers visit universities, churches and rotary clubs across North America spreading just one message that the only way to control society’s drug problem and the crime associated with it is to legalise all drugs and place them in a regulated legal framework.

A 12-minute documentary the group has produced to spread its message has won the praise of the veteran American journalist Walter Cronkite, who called it ‘a must see for any journalist or public official dealing with this issue.’

Their campaign is growing in momentum, and they may very well succeed. Because they represent that other set of untouchables in the drug debate the front line soldiers and enforcers of the drug war and if they don’t think it’s working, we better start listening.

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