14 September 2012

Alternatives to Prohibition. Illicit drugs:How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians

Report of the second Australia21 Roundtable on Illicit Drugs

Forward and Executive Summary

held at The University of Melbourne on 6 July 2012
Authors Bob Douglas, Alex Wodak and David McDonald 

Two Forewords

Australia21 is pleased to present this report of its second roundtable on illicit drugs held in July 2012. We are a small nonprofit body, which specialises in bringing networks of thinkers, researchers and stakeholders together to develop new frameworks for understanding recalcitrant policy issues which are important to the future of Australian society.

Our first drug report in April 2012 highlighted the inadequacy of current Australian policy in this difficult area. It argued that the current global approach that is dominated by prohibition and criminalisation of drug possession and use has failed, and causes immense harm, and that Australian policymakers now need to reconsider the issue in the light of the emerging international evidence from alternative approaches. For our second drug meeting in July 2012, we brought together a group of experts and young people to concentrate on experience in four European countries, which have taken innovative approaches to the illicit drug problem in recent years, and for which there is now good evaluative data. Our meeting agreed on the need for a National Summit on the topic and a referral of this issue to the Australian Productivity Commission. A number of specific options for change were discussed, which we think should now be considered broadly by the Australian community. We recognise that progress in this difficult area will only come slowly, through incremental steps and careful evaluation of the experience gained along the way. We believe, however, that it is time for Australia, with its fine health and welfare systems and its powerful capacity to evaluate the steps we take, to identify our first small steps and move to implement them.

Paul Barratt AO 
Chair of Australia21 and Former Commonwealth Secretary of Defence

The highest rates of drug use and related persecution in any age bracket in Australia are in our youth. They are tracked down when they go out to clubs, have sniffer dogs follow them along the roads at night, and even at the train station on their way to university or back home from work. Drugs are criminalising today’s youth. 
While billions of dollars are spent every year putting our youth behind bars, illicit drugs are still easily purchased and heavily promoted, despite the efforts of drug law enforcement agencies. The higher the efforts of policing, the more drug dealers can get away with, selling impure substances with unknown ingredients and quality, increasing their profit margin, and putting young experimenters in a serious public health predicament. This is a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue. 

The criminalisation of recreational drug use is a youth issue. It is youth health that is being compromised and our future that is being sabotaged. It is vital that young people are actively engaged to consider the solutions to this problem. Every young person put in jail for drug use, will become one less person who can contribute his or her full potential to the future of Australia. I am sure Australia can do better. The debate that has commenced in recent months around alternative positions to prohibition needs to be led by those who are most affected. We must take into consideration a range of alternative approaches to drug laws and make life safer for young people. I encourage all young people and advocates for youth to take this problem seriously and focus on considering alternative solutions proposed in this report. 

Vivienne Moxham-Hall
Honorary Youth Advisor to the Board of Australia21 and Student Representative Councillor at the University of Sydney

Executive Summary

This report follows from a Roundtable discussion held in July 2012 to consider new approaches to public policy about illicit drugs in Australia.

An earlier Australia21 report launched in April 2012 had concluded that attempts to control drug use through the criminal justice system have clearly failed. They have also caused the needless and damaging criminalisation of too many young people, often with adverse life-changing consequences, including premature death from overdose.

Australia’s illicit drug markets continue to thrive. Young people are being encouraged to experiment because huge profits are made from drug markets controlled by powerful criminal networks. Australia’s reported rates of cannabis and ecstasy (MDMA) use are among the highest in the world. Every year, new drug types appear in Australia. But the criminal justice system is unable to stamp out psychoactive drug use. People accused of drug related crimes fill our courts and those convicted fill our prisons. The collateral damage from efforts to suppress the drug trade continues to disrupt civil society and destroy young lives. About 400 Australians die each year through heroin overdose alone. By international standards our rates of drug-related deaths are extremely high. 

The July 2012 Roundtable included a group of 22 high level experts and young people, who examined changes in policy in four European countries and considered future options for Australia. These discussions identified a range of ways in which Australian policy could be reset. Some are modest and incremental reforms, while others are more ambitious and will require wide community consideration. 

The Roundtable called for a National Summit in 2013, to examine the specific proposals for reform canvassed in this report, including an important proposal developed by Professor David Penington AC, for a radically new approach to the regulation of cannabis and ecstasy (MDMA).
The Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal demonstrate that it is possible to adopt more effective policies consistent with the international drug treaties and with demonstrable community benefits. The stage is now set for a mature debate that should see this issue transcend political boundaries and focus on what is best for Australia’s young people. Australia’s response to HIV in the 1980s showed that our politicians from all parties are able to work together in the national interest and flexibly adopt bold and effective approaches. But this will not happen without a vigorous national debate. If we are to reduce the pernicious effects of black market drugs on the Australian community, control of the drug supply system must ultimately be diverted from criminal to civil and government authorities. We must evolve a new approach that acknowledges the powerful economic forces of the drug market, but which is acceptable to the community, and is achievable politically. Lawmakers require accurate data about the return on investment when allocating funding to various drug-related initiatives. Some large government expenditures are currently propping up a failed policy. There is a strong case for providing a reference to the Australian Productivity Commission for an enquiry into the cost-effectiveness of the current allocation of resources. Further, we are convinced that a more effective allocation of public resources to the illicit drug issue is achievable with much better value for taxpayers.


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