The inadvertent miscounting the amount of drug crime is concerning. Not for the error, but for the amount of money and time they’ve wasted fighting this “epidemic” over the last eight years.

For almost a decade the NSW government has been double counting the amount of drug crime. That’s a problem.

From 2010 to 2018 the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) accidentally double-entered police drug data. This led to the over-reported cases where police found drug use and possession by more than 85,000. This wasn’t a little error. When you crunch the numbers it means that most 1/3 of the reported incidents of this category of drug crime never happened.

For a number of reasons that’s a problem.

BOCSAR is one of those essential parts of the justice system in NSW. It has its counterpart offices throughout the rest of the country. It has an enviable track record of providing non-judgment, and accurate data on crime rates and crime trends. In the face of political demands for more police powers or more police BOCSAR has been consistently providing data on how most crime categories are falling, especially violent crime. This kind of data is essential to provide good governance, and laws based on evidence rather than on tabloid media scaremongering or politically-motivated law and order campaigns.

One area where crime rates have appeared to buck the downward trend over the past decade has been in drug use and possession. According to the official data (prior to this week at least) these categories of crime have been dramatically increasing. The apparent increasing prevalence of recorded drug use has been used by both Liberal and Labor politicians to push for ever more resources being spent on the war on drugs. More police, tougher laws, more drug dogs all to fight this apparent rising tide of drug use.

However, not all was as it seemed. A small erratum notice on the statistician’s website on the 5th of September indicated that: “The number of recorded drug possession incidents reported in years 2010 to 2017 has been revised down due to double counting of some drug possession incidents that came to police attention through a person search.”

The reason for the flawed data is that police double enter data; first, when they first search a person and find drugs, and then a second time when the person is charged with drug use or possession. BOCSAR had been entering these separate data points as two separate incidents, but in reality, they are the same event recorded twice in police databases. What this means is that over 30% of all recorded drug use and possession events in the official data never happened.

Many of the arguments in favour of more aggressive policing have been built on sand. The war on drugs has never been winnable, and what we see is that the NSW Police is having an even smaller impact on drug use than many thought.

It’s remarkable that the NSW Police Force didn’t identify the incorrect reporting by BOCSAR. It’s also surprising there aren’t clearer communications between police and BOCSAR so that both sides clearly understand the other’s reporting protocols. How at least the police were not aware of the problem, when their policing activities are being overestimated so dramatically, is impossible to understand. This wasn’t about getting the figures wrong by one or two dozen, or even one or two hundred, the numbers were out by the tens of thousands.

What is clear is that police oversight in NSW is completely ineffective at picking up flaws in the system. Whether it’s double counting interactions which makes a war on drugs seem more effective, or it’s police investigating police, the lack of a comprehensive and fully-resourced police oversight body fails us all.

I’ve been in state politics now for eight years. Year on year I’ve seen the police demand more resources and more intrusive powers to meet perceived crime levels. When it comes to drugs, much of this perception was based on the data produced by BOCSAR. I’m not suggesting that is the only source of the hysteria – anecdotal reports on “ice” use and aggressive PR work from the Police Association have also added to the chorus – but the fact that these anecdotal reports apparently had hard data behind them added to their strength, and that’s why this has likely been a very costly mistake.

We have seen a decade of aggressive drug law enforcement activities by the NSW police, backed up by a majority of MPs. The public has been hit with new police move-on powers, anti-consorting laws, anti-bikie laws, anti-protest laws, irrational drug-driving enforcement, expanded drug dog laws, expanded drug dog operations, all matched with more police and a more aggressive policing strategy. In fact just this week the Police Association came out to call for more police officers and more funding to help the war on drugs. It’s almost like they don’t care about the real data.

What we now know is that many of the arguments in favour of more aggressive policing of drugs have been built on sand. Since 2010 over 85,000 recorded drug use and possession events between the public and NSW Police never happened. In just 2017 there were 13,350 recorded drug use and possession events that never happened. The war on drugs has never been winnable, and what we see from these recent numbers is that the NSW Police is having an even smaller impact on drug use than many thought.

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Even with the revised number, that still leaves a lot of cases where police and court resources have been spent on criminalising drug possession and use. This isn’t just a random war on drugs either. It’s been a targeted attack on cannabis. Some 60% of the revised 275,000 drug possession and use charges in the last decade have involved cannabis.

There is very little hard data on actual policing operations because the police produce very little themselves. What we do know about things like the dreadful flaws in the drug dog program has not been provided freely by police. It has been painstakingly extracted from police by my office through parliamentary processes and the use of FOI.

The drug dog data shows how false positives (public searches where nothing is found after a positive indication from a dog) outstrip “successful” searches by over two to one. Remarkably, even when intrusive strip searches are carried out following a dog’s indication almost two thirds of those searches are false positives where nothing is found.

Every time police choose to spend resources on policing drug use, they are resources that can’t be used on tackling domestic violence and other crimes of violence or dealing with fraud, white collar crime or corruption. It’s not just the opportunity cost, the war on drugs continues to extract a human toll, to reduce trust in police and to fuel organised crime. Maybe this new data can be the moment we call for a ceasefire, followed up by a negotiated and permanent truce.


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