By Dylan Sahlin
The debate on what constitutes effective and safe drug policy should have ended decades ago. Numerous ‘wars on drugs’ have been waged by governments to no avail. These wars have populated our prisons, funded enterprising criminals, wasted countless police hours and cost billions of taxpayer dollars. But they have done nothing to stop the flow of drugs.
Drugs still come into Australia, and Australians still use drugs. There is no relationship between the punitiveness of a country’s drug laws and its rates of drug use. Prohibition, quite simply, does not work.
A recent report by the London School of Economics – signed by, among others, five Nobel Prize winning economists Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith and Oliver Williamson – reinforced this blatant failure. “The strategy has failed to achieve even its own aims,” they argued. “Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing. This has been despite drastic increases in global enforcement spending. Continuing to spend vast resources on punitive enforcement-led policies, generally at the expense of proven public health policies, can no longer be justified.”
However, the policy isn’t only punitively ineffective. It actively harms lives.
Prohibition has created and still maintains a vast criminal drug distribution network prone to violence and public corruption. Distributing an estimated $435 billion each year, the drug trade has become a lucrative business. It attracts criminal gangs and kingpins who enforce a lawless brand of violence to maintain their power. It is high risk and high reward. In Australia, the tax avoidance alone is estimated to cost upwards of $20 billion each year.
Entirely unregulated, the money generated from this network flows towards drug dealers, gang violence and elaborate, hidden production networks. Not a cent goes into the public purse or the pockets of honest workers.
Punitive drug policy also poses a significant risk to the health and safety of Australians. Unable to test the quality of illicit drugs, users are forced to ingest untested and often unknown substances. This game of pharmacological Russian roulette kills. In June 2016, a batch of the lethally potent painkiller fentanyl masquerading as heroin led to 13 overdose deaths. This lies among countless cases of overdoses from users who have unknowingly taken a mystery drug believing it to be another.
Australia’s system of crime and punishment is doing nothing to help drug users. Beyond enabling drug dealers and marginalising addicts, it is only propping up a costly legal administrative burden. For years, Australia’s insular drug discourse has been dominated by a law and order perspective. Public health advocates have been silenced, and political dissent from this popular line has been quickly quashed. Australia desperately needs a fresh approach, an approach that puts public health and safety first.
Drug decriminalisation and greater investment in harm reduction have been trialled globally and shown to be remarkably effective.
In 2000, Portugal, undergoing a nationwide heroin epidemic, took a political leap and decriminalised the possession of all drugs – all of them from cannabis to cocaine. Contrary to the expectation of many, removing criminal penalties for personal drug possession did not cause an increase in levels of drug use. In fact, drug use declined among those aged 15-24, the demographic most at risk for developing a drug addiction.
Rates of injection use and addiction also declined, while rates of HIV across Portugal fell significantly.
Not everything applies across national borders. Australia’s situation is unique and requires a unique response. However, policymakers would be wise to draw upon international success stories when crafting a new response to the drug problem.
Tellingly, the one example of the Portuguese harm reduction method in Australia, the Kings Cross Injecting Room, has been a resounding success. The Injection Room has prevented more than 3426 drug overdoses between 2001 – 2011 and made more than 10,000 referrals to health and social services at the request of patrons.
Australia needs more facilities like this if it is to successfully manage rampant drug use among Australians that shows no sign of stopping.
What is clear is that prohibition and punishment is most definitely not working. Australia needs a new approach.