Editorial: Cold Facts
In April, not-for-profit think tank Australia21 released a report on Australia’s drug policy. Provocatively titled The Prohibition of Illicit Drugs Is Killing and Criminalising Our Children and We Are Letting It Happen, the report called for a nationwide re-think of how drug policies are drafted and enacted, stating there should be “a shift away from criminalisation of the possession and use of illicit drugs.”
Prime Minister Gillard’s almost instantaneous dismissal of the report’s findings was disappointing but, in the current political climate, hardly surprising. Declaring “I am not in favour of decriminalisation of any of our drug laws,” she rejected any need for debate in what Australia21 chairman Paul Barratt called a “knee-jerk reaction.”
Also disappointing was that yet again most of the report’s authors had the word “former” attached to their names: former Federal Health Ministers Peter Baume and Michael Wooldridge, former Premiers Bob Carr and Geoff Gallop, former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell. It’s to their credit that they have spoken up about the injustice and hypocrisy of current drug policy, but what is it about the nature of Australian politics that makes serving MPs unable or unwilling to speak out? This is a social justice issue; a matter of what’s right, not just what’s right for the weekly Newspoll.
A greater disappointment, perhaps, was the lack of media discussion on how Australia might practically implement change in drug policy. If decriminalisation were put into practice here, how could it be done without invoking the tabloid/shock-jock nightmare of supermarkets stocked with hammer, ice parlours setting up shop next to high schools?
In autumn 2010, User’s News reviewed the book After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, released by UK policy foundation Transform. It’s one of the most sensible, practical designs for regulation of illicit drugs yet seen. The most refreshing aspect of the book is that every one of its regulation models exists in the real world: medical prescription models for heroin and methamphetamine, pharmacy-only models for cocaine, supervised membership/club models for ecstasy, Dutch-style “coffee shop” models for cannabis. The rules, restrictions and controls necessary to keep these models safe and workable are also in place, having been tested and modified over decades.
Australia is already providing a courageous example of how a dangerous drug, tobacco, can be re-regulated to reduce soaring health care costs and protect children without resorting to the iron fist of prohibition. Some may see a contradiction in decriminalising illicit drug use: why make cigarettes harder, more expensive and less attractive to obtain, then make buying currently illicit drugs easier? Step back and it’s easy to see that they should be part of the same approach. Drugs of any type can cause harms and problems, be they gastrointestinal bleeding from continuing aspirin use or psychoactive episodes from long-term methamphetamine use. We need a consistent and sensible approach to all drugs that are commercially available, regulated or unregulated, so that the harms related to them are reduced as much as possible.
The size of black market industries like the illicit drug trade are obviously difficult to calculate, but Access Economics estimated Australian illicit drug sales generated anywhere between $4.6 billion and $9.6 billion in 1997. The Australian Crime Commission estimated that up to $12 billion in illicit drug revenue was leaving the country in 2008. Against this, Australia spent around $740 million on law enforcement and Customs in 2002/3, according to a report by Turning Point’s Timothy Moore. (This against the paltry $45 million spent on harm reduction, a scant three per cent of total “proactive” Government drug expenditure.) Even if, horror of horrors, the law enforcement/interdiction budget were tripled, it would still pale against the vast funds and resources available to Australia’s illicit drug market.
The most sensible comment in the wake of the Australia21 report was Paul Barratt’s suggestion that the War on Drugs be evaluated by the Australian Productivity Commission. “When you spend a lot of taxpayers’ money doing anything,” he observed, “it’s supposed to be regularly evaluated. Governments seem to run away from having an evaluation of their tough-on-drugs policies.” In a public debate crippled by emotive language and scrabbling for moral high ground, perhaps the cool heads of economic oversight might be a useful tool for change.