14 September 2012

Alternatives to Prohibition (Continued...)

Shifting international attitudes

Following the report of 
the Global Commission 
on Drug Policy in 2011, 
international attitudes 
to prohibition underwent 
a rapid change. 

North and South America

During 2012, a number of Latin American nations, whose economies have been disrupted and social systems threatened by drug-associated violence, spoke out about the need for a new global approach to drugs. At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, 14-15 April, 2012, they demanded a debate on drug legalisation.

In particular they took strong exception to the terrible impact that the failed 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. Drug law reform is never an easy topic in the United States but especially not in a Presidential election year. President Obama was forced to acknowledge that drug legalisation was a legitimate issue for discussion while emphasizing that the United States could not accept such an approach. The failure of the current approach should hardly be a surprise given the experience of alcohol prohibition in the United States and many other countries. Some argue that a ‘prisons-industrial complex’ in the United States has been allowed to become unduly influential. Mr Steven Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, admitted publicly during the meeting that the War on Drugs approach had failed. Pressure on conventional drug policy is now coming from several fronts. In Latin America, soaring levels of violence are forcing governments to review their commitment to efforts to cut drug supplies. In many other parts of the world, an entrenched commitment to drug prohibition has been allowed to obstruct the implementation of effective measures to control the spread of HIV among and from people who inject drugs. The serious breaches of the human rights of people who use drugs and the poor returns from government spending on drug law enforcement at a time of serious sovereign debt are other grounds for concern. 


As a strong ally of the United States, Australia has largely complied with the international approach. Most of the reforms in drug policy implemented recently in Europe were tolerated grudgingly by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) who sometimes conceded 
that they did not abrogate the treaties. A growing coalition of countries, driven by the negative public health impacts of prohibition and the empowerment that it gives to criminal suppliers, is advocating for a review and possible modification of the treaties. Australia should now consider joining such a coalition. This should be a topic for discussion at the National Drug Summit proposed later in this report.


Despite the existence of these treaties, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal have implemented reforms which reduced drug overdose deaths and HIV infections and have made communities safer. Despite the fact that the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal were, like most other countries, bound by the international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988), these countries were able to implement substantial reforms. The crucial step was redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Sweden, now one of the few countries in Western Europe 

to continue to implement a predominantly criminal justice approach, reports that levels of drug use are low. But Swedish levels of problematic use seem about average for Europe while drug-related deaths are the eighth highest in the European Union and rising. Drug-related deaths in Australia may be even higher than Sweden (but direct comparisons are never straightforward). Although Australian media have published little information about recent international drug law reform, a number of European countries have made substantial changes apart from the few well-known examples. The experience of the Czech Republic is particularly important as the changes were carefully evaluated.

Following the overthrow of communism, drug use increased in Czechoslovakia in the 1990s. Czech politicians felt a pressure to respond. The Czech Republic was also under international pressure to maintain a strong emphasis on drug law enforcement with severe penalties for even minor drug offences. In 1998, the Czech government abandoned its liberal drug policy and introduced a new law specifying that possession of quantities of illicit drugs exceeding a threshold would result in criminal sanctions. A scientific evaluation of the new law found that criminalising drug possession neither deterred use nor benefitted health and was also expensive. The results of this study are well known in the Czech Republic and led to the removal (again) of criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of drugs. In 2000, (then) President Aleksander Kwaśniewski of Poland introduced harsh criminal penalties for persons found in possession of illicit drugs, regardless of quantity. The expectation was that this would ‘solve the drug problem’. While few drug dealers were arrested, the number of young people charged with drug possession increased more than ten-fold in the next eight years. Enforcement of this law was estimated to cost Polish taxpayers over $US 25 million annually. President Kwaśniewski ended up scrapping a law that he had introduced and in 2012 joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy so that he could support international drug law reform.

Distinguished citizens speak out

Another indication of growing disillusion with prohibition was the publication of an open letter in two leading UK newspapers, The Times and The Guardian, on 19 November 2011. The letter was signed by a group of more than 60 distinguished ‘international citizens’ who called for a review of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The letter attests to the remarkable recent change in international attitudes to global drug prohibition.

Letter from distinguished global citizens

On 19 November 2011, the following open letter was published in the United Kingdom in The Times and The Guardian newspapers by a group of more than 60 distinguished global citizens calling for a review of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This letter testifies to the remarkable recent change in international attitudes to global drug prohibition.

The letter reads:
We the undersigned call on members of the public and of parliament to recognise that: 
50 years after the 1961 UN single convention on narcotic drugs was launched, the global war on drugs has failed, and has had many unintended and devastating consequences worldwide. Use of the major controlled drugs has risen, and supply is cheaper, purer and more available than ever before. The UN conservatively estimates that there are now 250 million drug users worldwide. Illicit drugs are now the third most valuable industry in the world, after food and oil, estimated to be worth $450 billion a year, all in the control of criminals.

Fighting the war on drugs costs the world’s taxpayers incalculable billions each year. Millions of people are in prison worldwide for drug-related offences, mostly “little fish” – personal users and small-time dealers. Corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, has spread as never before, endangering democracy and civil society. Stability, security and development are threatened by the fallout from the war on drugs, as are human rights. Tens of thousands of people die in the drug war each year.

The drug-free world so confidently predicted by supporters of the war on drugs is further than ever from attainment. The policies of prohibition create more harm than they prevent. We must seriously consider shifting resources away from criminalising tens of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens, and move towards an approach based on health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect for human rights. Evidence consistently shows that these health-based approaches deliver better results than criminalisation.

Improving our drug policies is one of the key policy challenges of our time.

It is time for world leaders to fundamentally review their strategies in response to the drug phenomenon. That is what the Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by four former Presidents, by Kofi Annan and by other world leaders, has bravely done with its ground-breaking Report, first presented in New York in June, and now at the House of Lords on 17 November.

At the root of current policies lies the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is time to re-examine this treaty. A document entitled ‘Rewriting the UN Drug Conventions’ has recently been commissioned in order to show how amendments to the conventions could be made which would allow individual countries the freedom to explore drug policies that best suit their domestic needs, rather than seeking to impose the current “one-size-fits-all” solution.

As we cannot eradicate the production, demand or use of drugs, we must find new ways to minimise harm. We should give support to our Governments to explore new policies based on scientific evidence.

Signatories to Public Letter
President Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States, Nobel Prize winner
President Fernando H. Cardoso, former President of Brazil
President César Gaviria, former President of Colombia
President Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico
President Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland
President Lech Wałęsa, former President of Poland, Nobel Prize winner
President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of Poland
George P. Schultz, former US Secretary of State
Jaswant Singh, former Minister of Defence, of Finance, and for External Affairs, India
Professor Lord Piot, former UN Under Secretary-General
Louise Arbour, CC, GOQ, former UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights
Carel Edwards, former Head of the EU Commission’s Drug Policy Unit
Javier Solana, KOGF, KCMG, former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy
Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Norway) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Gary Johnson, Republican US Presidential Candidate
Professor Sir Harold Kroto, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Dr Kary Mullis, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor John Polanyi, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Kenneth Arrow, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Thomas C. Schelling, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Anthony Leggett, Physicist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Martin L. Perl, Physicist, Nobel Prize winner
Mario Vargas Llosa, Writer, Nobel Prize winner
Wisława Szymborska, Poet, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, former President of the Royal College of Physicians
Professor Robert Lechler, Dean of School of Medicine, KCL
Professor A. C. Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Professor of Economics at Cambridge
Asma Jahangir, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Execution
Dr Muhammed Abdul Bari, MBE, Former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain
Professor Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT
Carlos Fuentes, Novelist and essayist
Sir Richard Branson, Entrepreneur and Founder of the Virgin Group
Sean Parker, Founding President of Facebook, Director of Spotify
John Whitehead, Chair of the WTC Memorial Foundation
Maria Cattaui, former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce
Nicholas Green, QC, former Chairman of the Bar Council
Professor David Nutt, former Chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs
Professor Trevor Robbins, Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge 
Professor Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University
Professor Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
Professor Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy at UCL
Professor Robin Room, School of Population Health, University of Melbourne
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former Editor of The Sunday Telegraph
Dr Jan Wiarda, former President of European Police Chiefs
Tom Lloyd, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire
Sting, Musician and actor
Yoko Ono, Musician and artist
Bernardo Bertolucci, Film Director
Gilberto Gil, Musician, former Minister of Culture, Brazil
John Perry Barlow, Co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Bob Ainsworth, MP, former UK Secretary of State for Defence
Peter Lilley, MP, former Secretary of State for Social Security
Tom Brake, MP
Dr Julian Huppert, MP
Caroline Lucas, MP
Paul Flynn, MP
Dr Patrick Aeberhard, former President of Doctors of the World
Lord Mancroft, Chair of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation
Lord MacDonald, QC, former Head of the Crown Prosecution Service
General Lord Ramsbotham, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
Lord Rees, OM, Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society
Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss, Director of the Beckley Foundation


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 

Alternatives to Prohibition (Continued...)

Background to Roundtable Discussions

Expert Witness
In April 2012, Australia21 published the report of a roundtable discussion that had taken place between former senior politicians, law enforcement, public health and drug policy experts and young people in January 2012.

This report was entitled, The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen. It echoed the conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011), which declared the long-standing ‘war on drugs’ a failure, and recommended that all countries should reconsider their drug policy.

Since the release of the first Australia21 report in April, the current approach to drugs has been vigorously debated in the media. There have been few defenders of existing policy. In July 2012, a second roundtable of experts met to discuss what Australia could learn from the different approaches being taken to drugs in Europe, especially by the authorities in Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. These different approaches have been operating long enough for their impacts to be evaluated.

A Discussion Paper is Commissioned
To lay the groundwork for the July 2012 meeting, Australia21 commissioned Drs Caitlin Hughes and Alex Wodak to prepare a Discussion Paper.

Dr Hughes is a drug policy researcher at the University of New South Wales with a particular interest in the study of innovations in Portugal. Dr Wodak is a clinician with a long-standing involvement in national and international policy on illicit drugs. The 20-page paper traced policies in the above-mentioned countries as well as providing comparative data to evaluate their impacts on drug use and drug harm. 

Discussion Paper Conclusions
Hughes and Wodak demonstrated that a broad range of evidence to assess policy and consider law reform is now available compared to what was the case some years earlier. It used to be said that whilst the focus on reducing drug supply was not very effective, there were no other models to consider. Nowadays, however, a number of alternative models have been documented. Furthermore, there is now a growing body of evaluative data about the pros and cons of alternative ways of dealing with the problems resulting from psychoactive drugs and 
drug dependence. Significantly, the approaches in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal, more reliant on health and social measures than on the criminal justice system, are associated with a reduction in drug overdose deaths, HIV infection and crime. Conversely, Sweden’s more punitive approach has been accompanied high drug related deaths in comparison to other European countries and an apparent increase in problematic drug use. Meanwhile, over the past 15 years successive Australian governments have relied increasingly on efforts to cut supplies of illicit drugs, with little evidence of success. 
Wodak and Hughes conclude that more punitive approaches to drug use do not inevitably result in reduced consumption, and that more liberal approaches do not necessarily lead to 
increased consumption. 

Obtaining Reliable Data
Due to the stigma and illegality of drug use it is difficult to obtain reliable data on drug consumption and its impact. The Discussion Paper used statistics that have been broadly 
validated for use in tracking progress in national and international drug policy and for making comparisons across international borders. These data are of varying quality but they are the best we have. Comparison over time within one nation that uses good and consistent data 
systems, combined with rigorous trial methodology, is the best way to evaluate innovations. This is because there are always difficulties with international comparisons and huge variability in the quality of drug data collections across nations. Australian data on these matters is 
of generally high quality. One of the difficulties in this field is the extent to which arguments about policy are built on moral or ideological grounds, rather than on statistical evidence. Advocates often ‘cherry-pick’ from available variable quality statistical evidence to support their particular view. This occurs on both sides of the debate. Australian research capacity in the illicit drug field is now very substantial. Once there is bipartisan agreement about the specific aims of Australia’s future illicit drug approach it will be possible to build a dynamic database 

that can measure progress in future policy development on this topic. Indeed, doing so was recommended as long ago as 1989 when a Commonwealth parliamentary committee published its opinion that a National Drug Information Centre should be established to track the impacts of drug policy. It recommended that, if drug availability and drug-related harms did not fall, governments should adopt different policies, ones that were likely to be more effective.

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.

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.