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It’s time politicians had a rethink on waging the ‘unwinnable war’ on recreational drugs

16 August 2014 347 views One Comment

IN a remarkable and largely overlooked statement on Radio 3AW with Neil Mitchell on April 29, Tony Abbott admitted the war on drugs is “not a war we will ever finally win.

“The war on drugs is a war you can lose, the Prime Minister said. “You may not ever win it, but you’ve always got to fight it.

This game-changing statement followed a press conference about the release of an Australian Crime Commission report on illicit drugs, which admitted that “despite record seizures and arrests we are still only detecting the tip of the drug iceberg.

Federal and state police chiefs confirmed that every type of illicit drug is readily available in Australia. Indeed, Victoria Police deputy commissioner Graham Ashton admitted: “We’re never going to police our way out of the drug problem. In fact … we’re in the supply suppression business in policing.

Ashton didn’t put a figure on how much of the black market he thought police were suppressing, but most experts agree it could be as little as 10 per cent. So is it worth spending billions each year on attempted prohibition, to stop 10 per cent of the illicit drug market? To me, that makes no sense at all.

Around the same time as Abbott and Ashton went public about the failure of prohibition to win the “war on drugs, the New Zealand government bowed to media pressure and, shortly before the national elections, announced it would be suspending its groundbreaking regulatory scheme — the Psychoactive Substances Act.

This New Zealand initiative — passed by a vote of 119 to 1 on July 11 last year — was a world first because it took a scientific approach to determining which new psychoactive (mood-altering) substances were really dangerous and which ones met an “acceptably low risk of harm.

The logic behind this approach was that with public health concerns allayed, but with the demand for new psychoactive substances still being satisfied, the black market and organised crime would shrink, or maybe even cease to exist.

According to Associate Minister of Health Todd McClay, the main aim was “to protect New Zealanders, particularly young New Zealanders, from the harm caused by untested drugs and an unregulated market.

The results of New Zealand’s 10-month experiment, now publicly available, need to be digested by every MP and bureaucrat who supports Australia’s prohibitionary stance.

From July last year to May this year, the number of outlets selling new psychoactive substances in New Zealand declined from an estimated 4000 unlicensed sellers to 150 licensed ones.

The latter sold 3.5 million packets of NPS with no deaths. While the NZ Health Ministry estimated that between 150 and 200 people may have developed some dependency that necessitated professional help, during the same time 3764 New Zealanders died from tobacco use. Puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?

There was an average of 11,000 people consuming new psychoactive substances every day in New Zealand. Nobody knew this before because the market was unregulated. At the same time as illicit drug offences declined by 22.7 per cent, the NZ government collected $42 million in taxes from the sale of these products in just 10 months.

Imagine that going into solutions to all drug problems in Australia every year.

By any measure, this method of regulating drugs was successful. So why did the New Zealand government shut it down as an election approached?

The answer lies in the fact, across the life of the interim regulatory scheme, there were 2843 negative stories in the NZ media about the scheme and the products. In the same period there were only 12 positive stories. The scheme was brought down through negative, often ignorant, media reports and not by any rational health considerations based on empirical data.

Illicit drug regulation has never been based on what is best for the citizenry. It’s almost always based on what seems best for the political future of the government of the day. Witness the recent US National Drug Control Strategy boast that “41 states have adopted laws to ban chemical substances related to synthetic cannabinoids.

That may be so, but 23 states in the US now have legalised medical cannabis and two states have legalised recreational cannabis, while a further two are voting on it in November.

On July 27, a lead editorial in The New York Times called for national legalisation of cannabis. The newspaper linked such an action to the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933.

“It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.

At Las Vegas’s organised crime museum there is this telling quotation: “Prohibition was meant to outlaw drinking. Instead it made drinkers into outlaws. Notwithstanding the devastating effects that alcohol has on our society, prohibition, with all its attendant evils, made problems connected with booze so much worse than when the sale of alcohol was regulated.

As president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Alex Wodak explains: “The prohibition of illicit drugs has failed abjectly by every measure except one — bad policy has so far been very successful politically.

For me, there is one key question: why should our politicians continue to wage what Abbott rightly considers to be an ­unwinnable war?

Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book.

The Weekend Australian, August 16-17, 2014, Inquirer p 24.

One Comment »

  • Peter Smith & Miles Hunt said:

    Softer line on drugs

    ROSS Fitzgerald and Alex Wodak correctly identify that prohibition rather than regulation of illicit drugs remains government policy not because it works, but because it feeds on popular prejudice and thus is very successful politically (Ross Fitzgerald, ‘It’s time politicians had a rethink on waging the ‘unwinnable war’ on recreational drugs’, The Weekend Australian, August 16-17, 2014, Inquirer p 24.).

    Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten should seize this opportunity to join forces to show that bipartisan political leadership can take the tough unpopular decisions that are in the best interest of all Australians.

    Peter Smith, Lake Illawara, NSW

    WE need to change the ingrained idea that drugs are so bad that anyone who uses them is a criminal.

    Sure, they may be dangerous but so is sky-diving. It’s time to regulate the danger and reduce harms.

    Drugs should be treated as a health and social problem, not a criminal one. We need a war on harmful drug use, not a war on drugs, which is really a war on people.

    Miles Hunt, Sydney, NSW

    The Australian, August 18, 2014, p 13

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