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‘Tough on drugs’ actually means ‘no new ideas’

24 October 2011 4,069 views 5 Comments

ONE of the interesting side- effects of the Federal Parliament’s obsession with immigration and taxation issues this year has been that serious discussion of social policy has been sadly neglected. Especially around drugs. It’s been about 40 years since marijuana, LSD and heroin made their way into Australian society and about 30 years for cocaine and ecstasy. Methamphetamine has been with us for a little more than 15 years and in the past couple of years we’ve started to see the advent of synthetic analogue drugs such as Kronic.

Three inescapable facts arise from the most cursory review of Australian drug policy since the late 1960s. The first is that governments continue to rely almost exclusively on the ”tough on drugs” strategy. Secondly, drug use continues to escalate despite the ”tough on drugs” strategy – or rather, because of it. Thirdly, while tobacco and alcohol are demonstrably the most dangerous drugs, governments still treat them far more leniently than others.

In Victoria, new legislation is in the parliament to ban bongs. Yet Premier Ted Baillieu has exempted the traditional Middle-Eastern hookah from the ban, seemingly because he doesn’t want to lose votes in Muslim communities. None of this makes any sense at all.

If the road toll continued to rise over 40 years despite new speed limits, more traffic cops and speed cameras, would legislators continue with the strategy? Not likely. But when it comes to drugs, Australian governments cannot look any further than the United States for inspiration. They send people to jail for possessing a box of marijuana or as many ecstasy tablets as would fit in a packet of aspirin. But in effect, ”tough on drugs” means ”devoid of any new ideas”.

Apart from being a form of racial discrimination this legislation is going to force tens of thousands of young Caucasian and Chinese dope smokers to make their bong out of half an orange juice container and a piece of stolen garden hose. Inhaling hot plastic vapours will make more young adults sick than the dope will.

All states, and the ACT, have simply bought the AMA’s untested and unproven line that synthetic cannabis causes serious health problems and have banned its sale completely. They’ve even wrapped jail sentences around the synthetic drugs that are higher than for real marihuana. Yet many people were using these drugs to alleviate the symptoms of serious illnesses such as Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia, which may explain why this medical lobby group attacked these new compounds with such ferocity.

In Queensland, Anna Bligh’s Labor Government has gone so far as to introduce laws that say if a substance is ”similar” to synthetic cannabis or ”is intended to have a similar effect” then it is taken to be that.

This is probably the most misguided piece of drug legislation in Australian history, and will potentially criminalise all sorts of chemical compounds and stymie medical research on anything that vaguely looks like it could alter mood.

Because tobacco and alcohol are already legal and have unfortunately been with us since white settlement in Australia, a different approach is needed to help people give up these drugs.

Every time I hear federal Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, talking tough on cigarettes, I cringe. It’s taken her (and her previous health ministers) 40 years to go from the first health warnings on cigarette packets to legislation aimed at getting rid of brand names on packets. If that’s the best they can do to stop the current 15per cent of Australians who smoke, they should give the game away.

Any first year university student knows that, after price, the quickest and most reliable way to stop people from buying a product is to legally narrow the point of sale to the bare minimum, without actually enacting an outright ban. Total bans never work and almost always cause a product to thrive on the black market.

So instead of fiddling around with yet more packaging schemes, which will make no discernible difference to the number of smokers, why doesn’t Roxon simply get cigarettes out of supermarkets, out of newsagents, out of service stations and anywhere where children can witness the transaction of tobacco for money? Don’t worry about the kids seeing colourful brand names on the packet.

Take the packets out of mainstream circulation and allow them to be sold only from age- restricted premises such as clubs, adult shops and tobacconists.

If people have to make a separate and dedicated trip to a location they are not very familiar with instead of just picking up some cigarettes when doing the grocery shopping, then they will have more time to think about the decision. Their children will not see the transaction happening, in the process normalising the sale of cigarettes.

While we’re on about it, why do we still have alcohol for sale in supermarkets? It’s not as though there is a shortage of outlets selling alcohol that we have to have booze for sale alongside breakfast cereal.

Again, if governments were serious about bringing down drinking levels, they should be focusing on point of sale rather than labelling. Domestic violence and under-age binge drinking are fuelled by the easy availability of alcohol. Inevitably, the supermarket chains will fight to keep both cigarettes and alcohol as part of their mix and argue that without them they cannot be profitable. But look how many different lines the average supermarket carries. If they can’t make it with thousands of different products and have to rely on two of them for their profitability, they should give the game away.

Here again, politicians are duplicitous and will argue about why they can’t do this. They’ll carry the big stick and puff their chest out about being tough on drugs but when the retail and alcohol lobbyists are in the room, their posturing changes. Then they’re just tough on drugs which don’t have lobbyists.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including the co-authored satire Fools’ paradise: Life in an altered state and his memoir My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey.

The Canberra Times, 24 October 2011


  • Robbie Swan (author) said:

    Academic Calls for Tobacco Restrictions in Supermarkets

    Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald, has called for an end to cigarette sales in supermarkets in an article in the Canberra Times today.

    Fitzgerald says that there is a powerful link formed in the minds of children who witness an exchange of money for tobacco products by their parents or guardians in family areas.

    He claims that government changes to cigarette packaging are not serious attempts to cut down smoking rates and that point of sale restrictions would do far more to bring them down, without enacting total bans.

    He alleges that governments hold a ‘tough on drugs’ policy with illegal drugs to offset their lack of real action on cigarettes and alcohol.

    He cites Victoria’s ban on bongs last week and Queensland’s draconian laws on synthetic cannabis as evidence of this.

    Professor Fitzgerald is available for media calls on 0419 661869

    Canberra Times article: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/news/opinion/editorial/general/tough-on-drugs-actually-means-no-new-ideas/2333326.aspx

    Body Politics Pty Ltd

    PO Box 9080

    Deakin ACT 2600

    Ph 02 62852477


  • Dr. Alex Wodak (author) said:

    75% of commonwealth and s/t funding in response to illicit drugs goes to drug law

    Benefits from these billions are hard to identify

    But easy to find lots of collateral damage from drug law enforcement

    ‘If the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to anyone
    who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by murderous criminal
    gangs, the current arrangements are working well’.

    You are spot on about alcohol and tobacco

    Governing and opposition parties are intimidated by the drinks industry

    In some case, those not intimidated have to be bought

    So this is a political, not a public health problem

    This is about how the drinks industry, like fast food and gambling (and mining)
    are out of control

    A almost forgotten story for the media


    Because radio and TV largely feed off print

    And newspapers are dying and depend on alcohol advertisements that same was that
    some need their fix of alcohol or heroin

    And the owner of > 70% of Australian newsprint is on the same side as the drinks
    industry anyway

    Nixon winning 49/50 states in the 72 elections despite the hugely unpopular VN
    war had a lot to do with his declaration of a War on Drugs on 17 June 1971

    And politicians throughout the world got the message

    Ted Bailleau is pulling this stunt now in Victoria now because of the 37th POTUS

    Just as the meek will always be with us, so too people with alcohol and drug

    But the scale of the problem could be halved

    If only we could sort out the politics

    I am heartened by what Herb Stein used to tell Nixon ‘things that cannot go on
    forever, don’t’

    The trick is to see that it’s not just about individuals with dysfunctional
    alcohol and drug problems

    It’s also about communities with dysfunctional alcohol and drug policies

    A Wodak government could sort this out in 100 days

    Which is why you will never see a Wodak government

    And if you did, why a Wodak government would get thrown out faster than the
    Member for Griffiths when he was PM

    Drug law reform is making massive progress overseas

    Not yet in Australia

    best wishes,


    Dr. Alex Wodak AM,
    Director, Alcohol and Drug Service,
    St. Vincent’s Hospital,
    Darlinghurst, NSW, 2010,

  • Colliss Parrett (author) said:


    An interesting article by Ross Fitzgerald (“ ‘Tough on drugs’ actually means ‘no new ideas’”, October 24, p9). To the best of my knowledge, the national illicit drug strategy for the past several decades has been based on harm minimisation, not tough on drugs. So, if reckoned as a failure, as Fitzgerald suggests, it may well be time to look at other models, such as Sweden’s successful policy.

    Colliss Parrett, Barton

    Canberra Times, 27/10/2011, p 18

  • Dr Alex Wodak (author) said:

    Alcohol problem

    Ross Fitzgerald is right (“’Tough on drugs’ means ‘no new ideas’”, October 24 p9).

    Our approach to legal and illegal drugs should be much more effective.

    After all, virtually every family has been touched by an alcohol or drug problem. Yet governing and opposition parties persist with policies known to be ineffective. Why?

    Seventy-five per cent of funding spent by Australian governments in response to illicit drugs goes to drug law enforcement.

    Yet benefits from these billions are hard to identify.

    The war on drugs doesn’t work and costs a fortune.

    The drinks industry is out of control.

    Why does the media focus on the colourful but trivial aspects of alcohol while ignoring what is so obviously important?

    Newspapers are dying and now depend on alcohol advertising.

    Radio and TV largely feed off newspapers.

    Richard Nixon’s declaration of a War on Drugs in 1971 helped him win the American presidential election despite the hugely unpopular Vietnam War.

    Politicians throughout the world got the message. Here was a Viagra to restore electoral potency.

    We will always have people with alcohol and drug problems. But the size of the problem could be halved if only we could sort out the politics.

    Tobacco shows that immensely powerful industries can be brought under control and tamed. We need to find out how to tame alcohol.

    Dr Alex Wodak AM

    Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation,
    Darlinghurst, NSW

    Canberra Times 28/10/2011 page 18

  • Daniel said:

    While I agree with this article, and I definetly believe that restricting the sale of alcohol and cigarettes would have a huge impact on their use. I find it sad that we cannot emulate European countries where alcohol and cigarettes are freely available everywhere. You walk into a supermarket and alcohol is available next to the milk. This is beneficial and convenient for me, and I like that. However, I realise the sad truth that I must make a sacrifice and say, because there are people out there who cannot help themselves, I must suffer. That annoys me and saddens me greatly.

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