The Good Policy Pollies Fear


Is there any public policy that has failed more comprehensively than drugs prohibition?

It’s hard to think of one. Harsh criminal penalties for illicit drugs have been ubiquitous in most nations since at least the 1960s. Despite this, the global drug trade continues to expand. According to the UN, the global drug trade was worth US$321 billion in 2005, and last year’s Word Drugs Report estimated a total of 210 million drug users worldwide. That figure has been steady or trending slightly upwards since the late 1990s. Street prices in most Western countries, meanwhile, are low and falling.

The recent Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy found that "vast expenditures on criminalisation and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption".

And yet, because the drugs trade is criminalised, it has spawned trans-national networks of unprecedented sophistication and violence. In central American nations such as Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, the drugs trade has become so big and so dangerous that it is destabilising entire countries. The melancholy statistics for murders per head of population from the cartel-driven drug violence in Mexico easily approximate those of a serious civil war.

Central America’s problems are to some extent unique to that part of the world, where the world’s largest market for illegal drugs shares a long and porous border with a much poorer nation, offering many opportunities for smuggling and trafficking. But Australia is scarcely immune to the violent and destructive side-effects of drug criminalisation.

As Dr Alex Wodak of St Vincent’s Hospital observes today in The Conversation, "if … the aim of the War on Drugs was to create a dynamic and vigorous black market, and provide an ever-expanding variety of drugs of increasing purity at lower and lower prices while enriching organised crime, bikie gangs and corrupt police, then drug prohibition has been an overwhelming success."

A number of prominent Australians agree. Foreign Minister Bob Carr, for instance, observes that "An issue that worried me while I was in NSW politics was the police hitting railway stations with sniffer dogs. It was marijuana that was the focus".

Outspoken former New South Wales director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdrey thinks that drug criminalisation only leads to a "proliferation of crime" and "an increase in the corruption of law enforcement".

Harm minimisation works. The example of Australia’s spectacularly successful needle exchange programs is a case in point. In the 1980s under Neal Blewett, Australia took a public health approach to HIV/AIDS which included vigorous policy efforts to reduce the level of HIV transmission through shared needles. Australia’s rates of HIV prevalence among injecting drug users are around 2-3 per cent. In the US, by contrast, conservative politics and a climate of fear meant that needle exchange and other harm reduction strategies were delayed, and only partially adopted. US rates of HIV among injecting drug users are above 15 per cent. In countries like Thailand and Russia, where injecting use remains stigmatised and criminalised, and where harm reduction strategies have been consistently rejected, those rates are above 35 per cent.

The examples of Portugal and Switzerland, both of which have extensively decriminalised their drug policies with no serious increase in drug use, are well documented. Wodak points out that Switzerland’s drug liberalisation resulted in an 82 per cent decrease in new heroin users from 1990 to 2002, "along with reductions in new HIV infections among injecting drug users, drug overdose deaths, crime and quantity of heroin seized".

Similarly, Portugal embarked on an extensive round of decriminalisation a decade ago. The result has been a public drug-use profile largely similar to other Western European countries. In other words, while decriminalisation has been no panacea, it hasn’t made drug use any worse either. According to this recent authoritative review by Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens, there has been no avalanche of new drug use since laws were relaxed.

As Wodak points out, every dollar spent on needle exchange programs "saves $27 overall, including $4 in health-care costs". Despite this, only 1 per cent of Australia’s total state and federal spend on drug policy is spent on harm reduction. Seven per cent goes to treatment, 10 per cent goes to efforts to reduce demand and approximately 75 per cent of all taxpayers’ money spent on drug policy goes to enforcement: customs, the police, the courts, and the prisons. It’s a mind-boggling waste of public funds.

But, as ever with public policy, the facts are drowned out by a torrent of conservative moralising. Drugs are illegal because making them illegal is popular — with mums and dads in the suburbs, with talk-back radio hosts, with TV current affairs programs, and with politicians themselves. The cautious reaction of senior Gillard government ministers to today’s discussion paper by think tank Australia 21 is a perfect example. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, for instance, gives every impression that she would rather like to strengthen available drug laws. Health Minister Tanya Plibersek is apparently unmoved either way.

Drug law reform presents an interesting example for the Gillard government that has staked so much on carbon policy. Julia Gillard and her senior ministers constantly stress the importance of listening to the best available science on climate change in the formation of Australian carbon policy. But when it comes to drug law reform, the evidence is equally stark. Drug criminalisation doesn’t work.

Decriminalisation won’t solve the problem, of course. Nothing can stop the problem of drug abuse, just as no government policy can stop people committing suicide. Self-harm, of which drug use is one type, is simply a human propensity. All we can do is try and reduce the harm wherever possible. As the decades-long campaign against tobacco shows, when we really put our minds to it, we can help people to quit and, better still, never to take up drug use in the first place. But it would be foolish to believe we can ever eliminate it from our society.

What drug decriminalisation does achieve is to stop making the problem worse. A criminal record for drug use, for instance, is a harm in itself — for no gain in terms of deterrence (often expressed in that wonderful piece of common nonsense, "sending the right message"). A petty user or street dealer with a criminal record simply experiences a further barrier to his or her life chances, making rehabilitation a little bit more difficult.

In contrast, the money spent on the never-ending pursuit of drug dealers and traffickers could be far better spent on things that we know do work: tried-and-true programs of harm reduction and public healthcare. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Try explaining it on talkback radio or at a community meeting, and then you may realise how difficult drug law reform will be.

Bob Carr’s uneasy advocacy of drug law reform is indicative. When he was premier, Carr was only too happy to run a vigorous law and order campaign in successive elections, a campaign which saw tougher sentencing for drug trafficking and manufacturing. The result was longer sentences and more people in prison. Predictably, the crackdown had little if any discernible impact on New South Wales’ illegal drug use rates, as the findings of the Illicit Drug Reporting System show.

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