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Winning the war?

3.1 Commissioner John Johnson, Commissioner for Police in Tasmania, made the following

statement as part of his opening statement to the Inquiry:

"The Criminal Justice system in Australia spends about half a billion dollars a year attempting to control the use of illicit drugs throughout Australia using the police departments, the courts and jails. Our experience has been that that policy has failed and that police officers and other people involved in the system who think about drug harm minimisation are asking the community, the thinking people, to think through the problems and look at some other techniques that the community might be able to use to reduce the dependence on drugs, particularly amongst our young people in our community".

3.2 Mr Raymond Kendall, Secretary-General of Interpol, when asked if it was possible to win from a policing view point, replied "I certainly don't think we're winning and I'm not sure that we can win."

3.3 These are sobering comments from senior and experienced police officers which shook an audience used to hearing requests for increased resources for successful interdiction of illicit drugs. Over the past 30 years, countries such as the United States and Australia have spent billions of dollars trying to win a war against a commodity that has increased in popularity, dangerous use and price. There are now greater quantities and varieties of illicit drugs on our streets, more people are incarcerated than ever before and more and more young people are using and dying from these drugs than ever before.

3.4 Mr Georgio Giocomelli, Executive Director of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, admitted in a press conference in Canberra, 1993, that the illicit drug trade was the second largest industry in the world today after arms. It is estimated to net profits in the order of $450- $500 billion per year, which means it surpasses the oil industry. Every year, prohibitionist policies increase the drug traffickers' profits, the extent of police and government official corruption and the economic and social costs to the community; with no sign of a decrease in supply or usage.

3.5 Dr Adam Sutton recently completed a two year study of drug law enforcement in Australia. He gave evidence to the Inquiry that many police in Australia do not have a sound understanding of harm reduction principles. Dr Sutton suggested that this may be partly due to their training but is more likely because of the way that police service tasks are structured. Dr Sutton stated:

"The problem is that we don't have policies in place and the policy mechanisms to make sure that police at that local level, whether they're drug squad police, whether they're non-uniformed detectives or uniform police, have any sort of capacity to understand those relevant harms that might arise out of law enforcement and modify their activities accordingly".

3.6 His report examines ways to restructure police activities so that they are more able to

measure the consequences of illicit drug law enforcement. For example, illicit drug law enforcement inadvertently seems to shepherd drug users from less harmful drugs to more harmful drugs and from less harmful modes of administration to more harmful modes of administration.

3.7 An interesting and poignant perspective was given by Professor Alfred McCoy on the future of winning the war on drugs through law enforcement. After reviewing the Asian opiate market over the last 150 years, Professor McCoy stated:

"It is my feeling that the drug war is becoming increasingly irrational in the face of changes in the global opiates market and I will restrict my comments to the Asian opium trade ... I think we can look forward to at least a doubling of world supply within the decade, maybe within five years, and a sustained increase of those proportions for the foreseeable future. This increase in supply is going to make a mockery of the drug war that we're now fighting."

3.8 Professor McCoy researched the rise of opium production in Burma in recent decades and met the notorious Khun Sa who was Burma's (and the world's) leading heroin producer until he was retired' in early 1996. Some believe that with more resources, more interdiction and more efforts to track down the Mr Bigs' of the drug trafficking world, the powerful dealers that supply many countries with opiates, we will eventually rid the world of these drugs, or even reduce their supply. The recent demise of Khun Sa is a salutary reminder that this may not be so. According to Professor McCoy, Khun Sa had an army of 20,000 men, had declared the secession of a state of 10 million people from Burma and was truly a powerful individual. He had more power over the trade than any other person ever had and yet, when he fell from power, his fall was of no consequence whatsoever to the drug trade. It continued as it did before his fall. So, if bringing down the biggest of the Mr Bigs' makes no difference, how can the drug war ever succeed?

3.9 Professor Reuter reached an equally depressing conclusion. He argued that the effect of law enforcement efforts to control drug production including crop substitution in producer countries, particularly the Andean region, had utterly negligible consequences in terms of reduced supply of drugs in the United States. Professor Reuter was confident that tough law enforcement is responsible for making drugs in the US extremely expensive and more difficult to find. Drug users have to find more dangerous places to obtain drugs and this results in considerable secondary harm.

3.10 Professor McCoy's response to a question on United States policies on the drug war was:

"As a no doubt loyal Australian ally of the US, I think it's your obligation to save us from ourselves."

When asked why the United States takes such an interest in the internal policies of every other country in the world, Professor Reuter replied, somewhat tongue in cheek:

"When you're the world's only remaining superpower, the responsibilities are overwhelming ... You see the US as intrusive about drug policy, they're intrusive about a whole range of issues."

3.11 On Friday 10 May 1996, Prime Minister John Howard announced that national controls on firearms would be instituted in Australia in the wake of the massacre of 35 people in Tasmania. He said that we were not to go down the path of North America where lack of gun control has lead to a gun death every 21 minutes. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we do not apply the same rationale to our drug laws.

Police Corruption

"Our wonder in this society is not that we have got bent coppers, it is that we have got straight


3.12 Commissioner John Johnson told conference delegates that:

" ... police corruption is a major problem in this country. There are huge amounts of money involved in narcotics trafficking."

3.13 Police corruption also appears to be a major problem in most countries. Conference delegates also heard that police conducting a drug raid in the United States recently were confronted with $40 million in cash stashed in a basement. This money could have been offered to the police to forego arrests and charges being laid. For a police officer on a struggling wage, who sees that no matter how many he or she arrests for drug trafficking, the quantity of drugs available does not diminish, the temptations must be extraordinary. It was not suggested that all police are corrupt but rather that prohibition has created a framework for police to be constantly faced with this dilemma. Police departments have little hope of controlling corruption when such large quantities of money are involved and the exercise of policing must seem so futile.

3.14 Many police officers are also aware that the demands on their time required to enforce laws on drugs means less time is available to control violent crimes which always involve victims. In contrast, drug usage is a victimless crime. Furthermore, many police officers, by sheer membership of our community, must also be current or past drug users. This must also make it more difficult to enforce laws that do not seem to be benefiting their communities. If it is becoming increasingly obvious to convince the average thinking person that any amount of arrests and prosecutions will not make any discernible difference to the availability of drugs on the streets or the numbers of people dealing and using them, it must be demoralising to the many police who will have reached the same conclusion. In fact, police and customs officials themselves estimate that less than one fifth of imported drugs are interdicted which leaves 80% still on the streets.

3.15 As Mr Raymond Kendall, Secretary-General of Interpol said, "You can't control human

behaviour by making laws".


3.16 The Inquiry reached the following conclusions:

1. Notwithstanding the vast amounts of legal and financial resources expended on law enforcement, the drug trade has flourished.

2. Declaring war' on alcohol during the 1930's in the United States had the same result as declaring war' on illicit drugs has had in recent decades; profits made by the black market have increased, organised crime has flourished, property crimes have risen, civil liberties have been eroded and the burden on the criminal justice system and police corruption have steadily grown.

3. The removal of one so called Mr Big' simply clears the way for others to take over. The drug trade continues to flourish.

4. Unfortunately stringent policing has only increased the harm associated with illicit drug use. The dependent user fears seeking treatment and the recreational user is undeterred but adopts high risk practices and continues with his or her drug use.

5. Law enforcement leads to the arrest of many more users than large scale traffickers. Drug use often continues in jail despite extremely high health risks.

6. Despite their best efforts, law enforcement has only ever been able to interdict 20% of all imported drugs leaving 80% on the streets. Previous Section | Next Section | Table of Contents