26 October 2011

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

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.

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”.

In Victoria, new legislation is in the parliament to ban bongs. ”We’ll show those young kids that we’re serious about stopping marihuana smoking,” Premier Ted Baillieu said. Yet Baillieu then exempts the traditional Middle-Eastern ”hookah” from the ban seemingly because he doesn’t want to lose votes in Muslim communities. 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’

25 October 2011
Ross Fitzgerald
The Canberra Times, 24 October 2011

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