14 September 2012

Alternatives to Prohibition (Continued...)

The Market for Drugs
As a starting point participants accepted the harsh reality that drugs are a market with suppliers and consumers. As long as the demand is there, suppliers will emerge. If drugs cannot be obtained by legal means, then illegal sources will emerge. Seen in this light, it can be argued that the ‘drug problem’ is, in reality, an assemblage of problems resulting from drug markets that are directly influenced by drug prohibition. For example, heroin could be obtained by prescription in Australia before 1953, and problems associated with the drug were minimal. Australia’s problems with heroin began after, and not before, the drug was prohibited in 1953. At the international level, when prescription heroin has been provided medically as a form of drug treatment, drug users, their families and communities have benefitted substantially. Unfortunately, when the same drug users consumed street heroin before or after entering these trials, there were considerable health, social and economic costs for drug users, their families and communities. The use of prescription heroin is not generally associated with such problems. The problem is not primarily the drug but the drug distribution system. 

Prohibition: The Case For and Against
The prohibition of alcohol in the USA (1920-1933) is a very useful model, helping us to understand the severe problems which develop when demand for a drug remains strong after the supply has been cut.

The prohibition of alcohol applied to production and distribution but was not applied to possession and use. Although there has been some variation in the extent to which possession and use of different illicit drugs are treated as criminal acts in Australia, possession and use remain illegal in most Australian jurisdictions. 

Between 1919 and 1933 the manufacture and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the USA under the Volstead Act, which became law in October 1919 (and went into effect in January 1920). There were exceptions for medicinal and religious purposes; drinking itself was never declared illegal. The period of so-called Prohibition lasted only 13 years, but the damage it caused took years to repair. Almost from the outset there was a proliferation of backyard stills, home-brew and problems associated with the use of unclean cooking vessels. Organised crime quickly moved to capitalise on new and lucrative entrepreneurial opportunities, albeit illegal. Its presence became firmly embedded in American society so that despite the best efforts of the newly-formed FBI, criminal networks and influence continued to spread. 

One of the first acts of the new Democrat president in 1933 was to repeal prohibition. The United States was able to draw upon its own previous experience with alcohol regulation and that of many other countries. We have much less experience with cannabis regulation. It is likely that authorities learning from scratch how to regulate cannabis will take some time before the most effective form of regulation is identified. We may have to learn from some mistakes just as we have with tobacco regulation. 

International Treaties on Narcotic Drugs
Drug policy across the world over the past 50 years has been transformed by a series of international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988).  This system has been promoted and overseen with substantial input from the United States, which remains strongly committed to prohibition and opposed to harm reduction. The international prohibition of certain types of drugs has been in force for more than half a century, and has been strongly maintained through a network of UN agencies. The International Narcotics Control Board continues to monitor national compliance. But attitudes on illicit drug policy are beginning to change rapidly, even in the USA. Many countries have recently begun to mount a vigorous challenge to the international treaties that have constrained rational action for decades. 

The failed ‘War on Drugs’ 
In its most recent report published in 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared that the long-standing ‘War on Drugs’ had failed and that all countries should reconsider their drug policy. The political exploitation of a harsh approach to drugs had been initiated in 1971 by US President Richard Nixon when he declared a ‘War on Drugs’. 

During 2012, a number of Latin American nations whose economies have been disrupted and social systems threatened by drug-associated violence, began speaking out about the need for a new global approach to drugs. They took strong exception to the terrible impact that the war on drugs has had on their people. The President of the United States was forced to accept the legitimacy of a debate about the legalisation of drugs.

Examining the Arguments

Many Australians believe that the prohibition of illicit drugs should be maintained and that anything less ‘sends the wrong message to young people’. Australia21 went to considerable lengths to attract proponents of this view to participate in both Roundtables about drugs. We were pleased to be able to involve a prominent spokesperson for this view to the second Roundtable. The points presented (following) were generally not supported by other participants, but need to be seriously considered as part of the national debate. Ultimately it will be the evidence that decides which view prevails.There is some common ground between those who support prohibition and supporters of drug law reform. Both want to see that young people especially are protected from harm. Both want parents and the community to have greater control over potential dangers and greater emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation. All participants in the debate have the best interests of our young people at heart. But there are different views on the best ways of protecting our youth from harm. Neither side of this debate wants to see 1kg blocks of 100% pure heroin or cocaine sold at a supermarket checkout counter! For some it seems intuitively sensible to continue prohibition. But most participants in the Roundtable discussion considered that many parents would have a different view if they had better access to the growing evidence of the failure of prohibition and the benefits of reform around the world. This also includes evidence of what works and what does not work. In the interests of promoting this debate, Australia21 has included some of the views of a participant who favours intensifying prohibition. 

A case for Prohibition (view of one Roundtable participant)
Harm Reduction is part of the problem Australia has never conducted a ‘War on Drugs’. Rather, over the last 27 years, we have adopted a policy of ‘harm minimisation’ (otherwise known as ‘harm reduction’) without effective primary prevention and demand reduction. De facto
decriminalisation now exists in most states with lenient laws and a lack of clear penalties. Enforcement of laws creates risks that discourage drug use and give clear boundaries. The legacy of this policy has placed Australia in the position it now holds – one of the highest per capita in illicit drug use in the world.

One of the linchpins of harm minimisation is that of ‘decriminalisation’. In effect this is a form of legalisation and is not a workable solution. ‘Decriminalisation’ sends the dangerous message of approval that drug use is acceptable and cannot be very harmful. Permissibility, availability and accessibility of dangerous drugs will result in increased consumption by many who otherwise would not consider using drugs.

Australia has inadequate rehabilitation services with long queues of people waiting for treatment. There is a specific obligation to protect children from the harm of drugs, via the ratification by the majority of United Nations Member States of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). Australia should:
• reject the superficial position proposed by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in their 2011 report and adopt more workable improvements in Australia’s drug policy;
• move in the direction of Sweden and more recently, the United Kingdom – and give priority to ‘harm prevention’ and children’s rights;
• join other countries to oppose a more permissive drug policy, and in so doing, hold our commitment to the United Nations Drug Conventions;
• communicate with politicians and leaders in other major countries and, rather than further liberalising our drug laws, take a stronger stance against this global oppression.

We cannot be a ‘lone voice’ in what is essentially a global problem. The UN Drug Conventions were adopted because of the recognition by the international community that drugs are a serious social and health problem whose trade adversely affects the global economy. In 2012, UN Controls are working as a deterrent. They have helped keep use rates low, with only 6.1 % of people globally (between the ages of 15 and 64) using illicit drugs. International cooperation is imperative if we are to continue to succeed.

The case against Prohibition - 1. The top priority for illicit drug policy should be to reduce harm 

Tony Trimingham founded Family Drug Support after his 23 year old son Damien died from a heroin overdose in 1997. FDS supports families via a National telephone network, written resources, support groups and courses. 

The sole aim of drug law reform should be to reduce the number of deaths from drug and alcohol use and the damage caused by disease, crime and other drug harm. Reducing the 
number of people using drugs is just one of the many effective strategies for reducing drug-related harm.

Through support and health and social interventions we’ve seen many people overcome their dependency, reduce drug intake, control drug use and quit harmful substances. We’ve also witnessed them leading full and effective lives in stable relationships, in good health and in employment.

A drug user’s journey is usually long and complicated. This is made more difficult by the consequences of prohibitionist and punitive drug polices. Negative attitudes and the stigma attached to drug use is rife among politicians and some religious groups. Sensational journalism among some media commentators does nothing but further entrench ill-informed views among our community. More often than not, the views of prohibition advocates are based on a particular ‘moral’ or religious premise rather than evidence-based research and practice that demonstrate positive health and social outcomes.

Progress on drug law reform in Australia has been painfully slow. Despite some steps in the right direction, such as the COAG Illicit Drugs Diversion Initiative, without doubt it has cost lives, 
which reflects poorly on such an enlightened and developed nation. At a time when other countries have proved the efficiency of such strategies, Australia has just one supervised 
injection facility. Indeed, there is no evidence that more progressive polices lead to an increase in harm. On the contrary, most report better health, childcare, housing, and crime and wellbeing outcomes. 

Were Australia to decriminalise drug use, then advocates of decriminalisation must speak loudly and clearly about the negative aspects of drug taking.

The case against Prohibition - 2. Prohibition does not prevent access to drugs in Australia 

Michael (Mick) Palmer is a 33 year career police officer with extensive experience in police leadership and reform in community, national and international policing. He served as Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), from 1994 until March 2001. He was previously the Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on Drugs and was until recently a member of the Board of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. He has recently become a Director of Australia21.

My starting point is that my experience as a career police officer has convinced me, albeit slowly and over a period of many years, that the current prohibitionist based drug policy has failed miserably and must be re-considered. I have arrived at this conclusion irrespective of the evidence now available from other countries and the numerous commissions of enquiry and reviews, which have been conducted in recent years. However, I find that my opinion is strongly corroborated by these enquiries and reviews and that the evidence in support of consideration of change is overwhelming.

In regard to the use and possession of currently illicit drugs, Australia’s policy should be primarily aimed at minimising the harm caused by drug use, and actively protecting the health and wellbeing of drug users and victims. Whilst controlling and reducing drug related criminal trafficking and related offences must remain an important part of any strategy, it should be complementary to the primary aim of providing health and social care and support for drug addicts and users. This should not be construed, however, as suggesting that any message that is given is not strongly negative to drug use.

Contrary to popular opinion and frequent political assertion, law enforcement of illicit drug trafficking, use and possession has had little positive impact on the illegal Australian – or international - drug marketplace. Australian police are now better trained, generally better equipped and resourced and more operationally effective than at any time in our history but, on any objective assessment, policing of the illicit drug market has had only marginal impact on the profitability of the drug trade or the availability of illicit drugs. At the local level young Australians can and do purchase illicit drugs with ease and generally with impunity.

The case against Prohibition - 3. We need to reform the law and expand harm reduction measures

Lisa Pryor is a journalist, writer and medical student. She is the author of two non-fiction books, most recently “A Small Book About Drugs: the debate we need to have about recreational drugs”. She was previously the opinion page editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, where she also wrote a weekly opinion column. She has a law degree, with first class honours, and an arts degree, from the University of Sydney. She returned to the university in 2011 to study medicine. She is the mother of a toddler and a baby.

Personally I would like to see incremental and evidence-based drug law reform in Australia consisting of: 

• further rolling out existing policies which are already working, for example, replicating the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross in other areas, and expanding needle exchange programs to prisons; 
• decriminalising possession of small quantities of all illicit drugs following the Portugal model; 
• debating the merits of legalisation of marijuana and ecstasy;
• debating the merits of legalisation of heroin in a carefully controlled therapeutic setting for addicts who are not responsive to abstinence-based treatments or methadone.
• emphasising that decriminalisation empowers families. Some parents are fearful that decriminalisation will mean a free-for-all in which they will lose the power to stop their kids 
getting into trouble with drugs. It is important to explain that the opposite is the case. 

In the current policy environment, it is difficult for parents to seek help from the authorities, particularly police, without making things worse. If a teenager is going off the rails, a criminal record will only make study and work more difficult. As a parent, one of the things I like about the Portuguese system is that I would feel more confident dobbing drug addicted kids into the police, confident that the outcome would be help rather than jail.

Challenge the language around ‘tough on drugs’. It is galling that governments are described as ‘tough on drugs’ when they increase sentences for drug possession, as has occurred recently in Western Australia. Far from being tough, increasing sentences is just about the weakest, laziest, easiest and least effective thing a government can do. It is also extremely expensive. Perhaps supporters of change need to use better slogans like “Forget tough on drugs, we want smart on drugs” or “The government wants to spend more taxpayer money jailing drug takers”.


Authors Bob Douglas, Alex Wodak and David McDonald 

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