Alex Gillis

War on drugs is a fool’s paradise

AP Photo/Guillermo Arias

“Australia remains at the forefront of policy and programs to address substance use,” intones the self-congratulatory annual report of the Australian National Council on Drugs.

There are 400 deaths a year from illicit drug abuse, a figure unchanged in the last decade, and 3,500 people are imprisoned for drug-related charges annually – people of low socioeconomic status being hugely overrepresented. Still, according to a report in 2010 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, use of illicit drugs has remained virtually static over the last fifteen years: 14.7 percent of Australians reported illicit drug use in 2010, a statistically significant increase on 13.4 percent in 2007, and eerily similar to the 14 percent reported by the same survey in 1993.

Local and international bodies have broadly found that our so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has been a colossal failure. Australia spends nearly two billion dollars annually on illicit drug responses, two thirds of which is directed to law enforcement. Abuse of “hard” drugs isn’t being stopped by prosecuting end users. “Zero tolerance” and hardline approaches continue to be pushed in spite of a body of evidence pointing to their complete inadequacy. The expensive shambles perpetuated by the war on drugs – and by extension, on drug users – has achieved little.

The prohibition approach to substance abuse drives the lucrative market into organised crime rings (heroin’s street value is six times that of gold), putting some of our most vulnerable individuals into the all-too-eager hands of hardened criminals.

Schedule drug laws based around the forty-year-old UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances not only fail to limit recreational drug use but stifle further research on therapeutic applications. As leading experts wrote in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in August, “In practice…there has been a de facto ban on research into many psychoactive drugs over the past 50 years”. Amazingly, they describe the single scientific paper on MDMA in a leading journal over the last few decades – one that was quickly retracted due to researchers mixing up ecstasy with amphetamine – being employed to justify vastly increased penalties for possession of MDMA in the USA. This is indicative of a broader malaise in drug policy where recreationally-used drugs are stigmatised and research blocked for no other reason than political pandering.

There is no convincing reason for the prohibition of many substances, especially when they are compared with the two obvious legal recreational drugs – alcohol and nicotine. A 2010 analysis by the UK’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs found alcohol to be at least twice as harmful to the user and five times as harmful to others as cannabis. Harm scores for smoking and drinking were shown to be significantly greater than most illicit drugs – including LSD and ecstasy.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has established that alcohol increases rates of violence, assault and suicide, with an estimated annual cost in excess of $14 billion.  And the seemingly ongoing spate of king-hit injuries in Sydney due to alcohol abuse are a stark reminder of harmful effects of alcohol abuse that go beyond the individual. Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and all manner of diseases. Surely, as smoking and alcohol are both at least as harmful as many illegal substances, they should immediately be removed from sale.

What to do?

We could criminalise the growth of the tobacco plant, burn the wine grapes and convert the pubs into prisons to house these criminals. We could start locking up children carrying beer and prosecuting people having a smoke on their balcony.

Obviously, these policies are ridiculous. They’re irreconcilable with the harm that these substances cause in broader society – entirely unjustified means to no definite ends.

So why do we apply them to drugs that are probably less dangerous? We’re employing police to round up young people, addicted people, poor people, and throw them in cells.

Public support is higher than ever before, and approaches to marijuana such as decriminalisation in Portugal or full blown legalisation in some US states have proved that safer and more evidence-based approaches can work. Indeed, they have been found broadly to significantly reduce drug harms and problematic use. Crucially, a 2010 report on Portugal’s reforms in the British Journal of Criminology concluded that they offered a model for jurisdictions wishing to provide “less punitive, more integrated and effective responses to drug use”. Initial responses to the limited legalisation seen in Colorado have been similarly positive.

The cynic’s answer is that it is convenient for politicians to be seen to be appealing to public health by upping the cost of smokes while avoiding raising income taxes or raising the ire of moralisers by questioning illicit drug policy. In 2004/05, the federal government was $2.7 billion in surplus from tobacco taxes and a further $1.8 billion in pocket from alcohol. That is, costs attributable to tobacco and alcohol for the government were outweighed by tax revenue by over $4 billion. What right does a government have to tell the populace some psychoactive substances are too dangerous for our little minds while profiting politically and economically from others? The hypocrisy that the use of most illicit drugs is criminally punished while very damaging legal drugs remain multi-billion dollar business is intolerable.

Current legislation is worse than inconsistent – it is arbitrary. An ineffective, expensive approach where the biggest losers are those we are trying to protect. It’s time for a change because the mess we have now clearly doesn’t work. While our regulatory bodies continue to pat themselves on the back and ignore evidence and our supposed leaders continue to willfully mislead the populace, this expensive and shockingly ineffective battle will go on.

Organised crime will prosper, research will be stifled and deaths will continue.

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