It’s time to prepare for a post-prohibition world instead of a futile war on drugs
In the US mid term elections on November 4, voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC, like voters in Colorado and Washington states back in 2012, passed ballot initiatives to start taxing and regulating recreational cannabis. Also in the 2014 elections, voters in California supported a very important ballot initiative to reduce the severity of penalties for drug offences. This initiative is expected to substantially reduce the very high incarceration rate in the most populous state of the union. It is now clear that voters in the US are growing increasingly tired of fighting an expensive and futile ‘war on drugs’.
William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for Drugs and Law Enforcement, the most senior government official responsible for US drug policy, made some very significant comments on October 9 which have received surprisingly little media attention. Brownfield declared that the international community should now proceed on four pillars: first, respect for the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions; second, acceptance of flexible interpretation of those conventions; third, tolerance of different national drug policies; and fourth, agreement that whatever drug policy countries have, the commitment continues to combat the criminal organisations trafficking drugs for economic gain.
Brownfield noted that the first of the international drug treaties was drafted in 1961 and that the world has changed greatly in the half century since then. He argued that in a rapidly changing world the international approach to drugs must be sufficiently flexible to enable national policies to adjust. Brownfield accepted that countries must work together in the international community showing tolerance for those differing policies including ‘legalisation, decriminalisation, de-penalisation’. While this approach involves some continuity with long standing US drug policy, it also represents considerable change.
Over more than a century, the US has been the principal architect and international enforcer of global drug prohibition. This was a system slowly built up over many decades after an initial meeting in Shanghai in 1909. The system rests on three major international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988) and a network of UN agencies to develop, implement and monitor policy. About 185 countries, including Australia, have signed these treaties.
Until now, the US has strongly supported a very strict interpretation of these treaties. While evidence of success of this approach is hard to identify, serious unintended negative consequences are all too obvious. Brownfield’s comments represent a major shift in US drug policy with a new acceptance of the major change in attitudes to drug policy occurring around the world.
Pragmatism is slowly replacing ideology. But despite the growth over the last half century in the size and hazard of the global drug market and the increasing number of deaths, diseases, property crime, corruption, violence and major threats to national security, the USA is clearly not yet ready to abandon its long held view that drugs are primarily a criminal justice problem.
These changes are also reflected in Australia with Prime Minister Tony Abbott conceding on April 29, 2014 that ‘It’s not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose’. Importantly, Abbott and a number of other senior Australian politicians are open to the idea of allowing medicinal cannabis to be legally prescribed and used.
Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said that “politicians of varying stripes are now being mugged by the reality that, whether we like it or not, a desire to use psychoactive drugs is part of life on Planet Earth, especially for young people.”
Until now, our drug policy has been about a world many would like to live in, instead of being about the world we actually inhabit. In fact, the global ‘central command’ approach to drug policy has failed as spectacularly as the North Korean and Cuban central command economies. As Wodak rightly concludes, “The only benefit of this failed approach to drug policy has been short-term political”.
In 2004, then Senator Barack Obama said presciently ‘in terms of legalisation of drugs, I think that the battle , the war on drugs has been an utter failure. And I think that we need to rethink and decriminalise our marijuana laws’. The Gallup poll has been asking US citizens every year since 1969 ‘Do you support the legalisation of marijuana?’ Support rose from 12 per cent in 1969 to 58 per cent in 2013. Although this year it dropped slightly to 51 per cent, 2014 is the 4th consecutive year that support for the ‘legalisation of marijuana’ in the Gallup poll has been at or over 50 per cent.
Although politics can often be a merciless occupation, the reality is that, with the right message, a great many Australian citizens value courage and vision , especially in our leading politicians.
Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign slogan, ‘It’s time’, surely applies in spades to drug policy in Australia now. The time for exploiting futile drug prohibition for short-term political gain should be over. Many countries are now starting to explore what a post-prohibition world might look like. Australia should join that exploration.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.
The Canberra Times, November 17, 2014, p 5.