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Common goals

2.1 Many drug law reformers see prohibition as unintentionally creating ideal conditions for drug traffickers by boosting the very profits which drive the engine of the illegal drug trade. Alternatively, many supporters of prohibition consider that drug policy reformers unwittingly play into the hands of drug traffickers by making drugs cheaper. There may be much more common ground between these two opponents of drug traffickers than we give them credit for. Both believe in effective drug education and treatment programs and the research necessary to bring about improvements. Both groups support severe penalties for criminals involved in large scale trafficking of illicit drugs.

2.2 What separates reformers from prohibitionists is that the reformers reluctantly have come to accept that after many decades of trying to eliminate both a demand for and a supply of illicit drugs, these drugs are likely to be always with us. Unfortunately we have to acknowledge that efforts to stem the flow of drugs or quench the desire to use them have not met with much success. Not for lack of trying either! If we want to reduce the harm associated with drugs, reformers say, we need to focus on making drugs less damaging and reduce the emphasis on cutting supply. Some, but not all, argue that as prohibition causes more harm than it prevents, meaningful harm reduction has to involve substantial drug policy reform. Reformers have come to accept that there is no approach to the supply of illicit drugs of dependence that will ever achieve a drug free society'. They argue that an approach based on pragmatism and an acknowledgment of the inescapable reality that drugs like heroin will be around for many years, if not decades, are pre-conditions for developing more effective policies. Punitive measures all too often seem to exacerbate the adverse consequences of illicit drug use.

Questions posed by the International Narcotics Control Board

2.3 The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has recently posed a number of questions to those who advocate controlled availability:

These are all important questions. They are so important that we should also ask the same questions of the present system:

2.4 The argument about illicit drugs today is less and less about whether or not current approaches achieve satisfactory results. It is becoming clear that current approaches are costly and ineffective. The debate is now moving to a consideration of alternative approaches. After all, purity levels are regulated in a diverse range of our foods and other products which we consume. Administrators control the way milk, cigarettes, wine and spirits are produced and sold. All are covered by standards which are enforced to ensure that these products are fit for human consumption. Why is it not possible to achieve standards of purity and concentration with currently illicit drugs? Many experts tell us these days that the lack of standards in the products distributed through the black market is responsible for most of the morbidity and mortality associated with these drugs. Most communities have developed mechanisms to deal with age limits for driving, marriage and the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Like the other questions posed, these logistical concerns have all been met in special arrangements made for different issues.

2.5 The International Conventions are often cited to explain why we cannot change our policies. Yet these are laws that are passed supposedly for the benefit of the citizens of the world. Surely these Conventions can be changed if they are found to be increasing rather than reducing harm?. If Tasmania can be the world's largest producer of legal opium under the current Conventions, to the benefit of Tasmanians and consumers of these products, why can we not develop a comparable system for providing currently illicit drugs through a Government controlled and licensed system to those who seem unable to live without these drugs? The International Conventions were designed primarily to deal with international trafficking. These provisions seem as needed now as when they were first developed.

2.6 Some policies appear to be against the spirit, if not the letter, of these Conventions such as the issuing of sterile syringes. This program has widespread community support because it helps contain the spread of HIV. But it has put one government authority against another. The police are expected to still seek out and arrest people who self administer illicit drugs while health authorities, attempting to contain the spread of dangerous infections, have found that this requires building bridges with the same people another government department is trying to arrest.

2.7 According to the INCB, people who argue for controlled availability misunderstand the situation, the requirements of the Conventions and the consequences of their beliefs. Yet there seem to be many experts with an excellent understanding of the Conventions who have also been aware of the public health consequences of trying unsuccessfully to restrict drug supplies. Many of these individuals have advocated more rational and workable approaches starting with the need to stem HIV by providing clean needles and syringes. Most of the 25 official inquiries in Australia since 1970 have also shown a great deal of understanding, both of the consequences of continuing (or extending) prohibition and of adopting an approach based on harm minimisation. These reports have, with the passage of time, dealt with the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be.

2.8 Fortunately we do not seem to lack essential information on this subject. We appear to have all the information needed to make sensible policy decisions. There is a plethora of literature about current systems and alternatives and no shortage of well thought out examinations of the subject. Yet all too often we hear expressions of dissatisfaction with current approaches followed almost immediately by a concern to resist change.

2.9 The arguments put forward by the INCB in defence of prohibition seem to ignore the fact that many of the problems encountered today are caused by a lack of control over the illicit drug market. The drug traffickers are able to dictate completely how the drug market will be operated. And by all accounts, the traffickers are thriving while health problems are increasing.

2.10 The INCB also claims that crimes committed under the influence of drugs, including violent crimes, might increase under controlled availability. This may be so, but it seems undeniable that most of the violent crime associated with illicit drugs at present involves traffickers fighting over territory. Property crime is much more closely associated will illicit drugs than violent crime. Property crime has increased in many parts of the world where street drug prices have been driven up by more intensive law enforcement. The link between prohibition of drugs and police corruption seems far more serious than was first imagined.

Economic costs

2.11 The most convincing argument of all to move away from prohibition is the economic one. At a time when Australian political leaders and taxpayers are very conscious of the need to restrain government expenditure on activities which bring benefits to the community, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year on drugs prohibition without much evidence of any benefit. Some still believe that their money is being spent well because they have not had the opportunity to scrutinise the outcomes of this enormous expenditure. Police associations, prison warders and customs officers often argue that more resources are needed or illicit drugs will escape from control never to be controlled again. While we deal with a national deficit, every other program in Australia is suffering scrutiny in terms of outcomes and value for money to the taxpayer. Community services, education and health have all been subjected to the closest scrutiny, but the budget for the law enforcement of illicit drugs seems to escape unscathed and unquestioned.

2.12 If alternative approaches to the current regime of prohibition are to be considered, the community will need to understand how expensive it is to keep large police drug squads operating and to maintain prisons full of inmates serving time for drug related offences. We will also need to know how much alternative options might cost and what benefits or unintended consequences might accrue. Whether we retain prohibition or adopt some kind of reform, more cost effective ways of dealing with the problem need to be identified than the current methods of responding to the illicit drug problem.

What will work?

2.13 To continue arguing that prohibition is making any impact on the problems associated with illicit drug use is untenable. Prohibition has failed on all levels - health, social, legal and economic.

2.14 The debate is too important to be left to politicians and experts. We need to hear from members of the community. We need to ask ourselves "What will work?" The Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform has developed a Charter for Drug Law Reform which could provide the framework for a new policy direction. Research done in these areas will provide some guidance. The many reports that have come out of Parliamentary Inquiries and Royal Commissions provide blueprints for alternative approaches.

2.15 The debate must now proceed beyond the issue of whether to continue with prohibition or opt for a controlled availability regime. The time has come to demand practical, workable strategies to be seriously considered by our politicians. Previous Section | Next Section | Table of Contents