My following column appears in the Guardian today:
Australians love consuming illicit drugs. We enjoy smoking, inhaling and losing our minds. Figures released by the Bureau of Statistics in June found that we are spending more than $7bn a year on a cocktail of various substances. The “war on drugs”, applied haphazardly by law enforcement, costs us around $1.1bn annually, according to a drug policy modelling program at the university of New South Wales. It’s an unmitigated disaster – one that benefits cartels and corrupt cops.
Do the maths. The state is spending billions of dollars every year imprisoning drug pushers and users, with private prison owners reaping the benefits. And yet, drug consumption is only increasing. Australia’s culture of incarceration desperately lacks in justice reinvestment to support troubled individuals in our communities, which includes a large number of drug users.
Governments and their media courtiers talk about being “tough on crime” and bravely fighting a battle against the drug scourge. They should look in the mirror and question how frequently politicians and journalists snort a line of coke on a Friday night. Hint: pretty damn often. Australians enjoy the greatest amount of recreational drugs per capita in the world, according to a 2012 UN world drug report.
Let’s get serious. Current policies bolster a dangerous cartel culture. The only way to tackle Australia’s addiction to drugs is to cautiously legalise and tax them – a move that simultaneously accepts that prohibition always fails, and gathers revenue to assist in rehabilitation for any negative health effects. This isn’t a utopian solution, guaranteed to end the black markets and stop all drug-related violence, sickness or diseases such as schizophrenia (which drugs can increase the risk of developing), but it’s one we have yet to try.
New Zealand, under a conservative government, is taking another path: it will soon regulate recreational drugs based on their harm. Only safe, psychoactive drugs will be sold from approved outlets. Bravo to acknowledging the inherent dangers in the massive growth of synthetic drugs (arguably a result of repressive drug laws) and trying to find legal ways to manage the huge market of mind-altering substances.
Cannabis, by far the most popular drug of choice in the nation, remains consumed by individuals often without police sanction. This is unofficial decriminalisation, though it’s applied unevenly. In America, a similar context has created a new Jim Crow, a vast, black underclass that is never given a chance to properly contribute to society. The situation is depressingly similar here – witness the high number of Indigenous Australians locked up for non-violent drug crime.
A 2012 report by the non-profit think tank Australia21 claimed that the country’s current legal regime against drugs is “killing our children”. Foreign minister Bob Carr, whose views were canvassed, said that he favoured “a bit of modest decriminalisation.” This is as brave as declaring a woman may be half-pregnant. It’s beyond time for more than baby steps.
Others were more forthright in the Australia21 report. Former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery said that he’s “strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing all drugs”. It’s the kind of view that places him outside the political mainstream in this country. Even the Greens remain unwilling to call for drug legalisation. Instead, they push for harm minimisation, an undeniably positive step far ahead of the major party platforms, though weakened by years of a hysterical scare campaign warning that the party will personally give ecstasy pills to your teenage daughter.
But global attitudes towards the “war on drugs” are shifting. Twelve years after Portugal ditched criminal penalties for users, the results are largely positive with barely any rise in usage. The Organization of American States, which includes 35 north and south American countries, announced this year that decriminalisation must be considered after decades of poisonous, Washington-led drug policy that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
America, under the Obama administration, has deepened the “war on drugs”, including backing a coup in Honduras and funding a violent conflict against civilians there supported by a military directly complicit in the drug trade.
Latin America has a long memory, recalling the US-enabled “dirty wars” in the 1980s, that explains the more independent path pursued by nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. They suffered some of the worst outrages and today increasingly refuse to play Washington’s game. After all, the appetite for drugs inside North America has never been higher.
Australia lacks a culture of political bravery in its approach to the drug industry. Although many jurisdictions now utilise harm minimisation techniques – such as injecting rooms and diverting drug users away from the courts and towards treatment – punishment remains our main policy. After decades of ruining countless lives with our puritanical streak, mimicking America’s “just say no” to drugs with a bludgeon and the barrel of a gun, criminalising the most vulnerable still does nothing to address the underlying causes of drug use.
Fighting the “war on drugs” is not about ending consumption or destroying the cartels. It’s a bankrupt, imported ideology intended to appease the gullible. This war is fought principally against the poor and the underprivileged. In America, it’s a war fought by the white elites against an African-American underclass. Unless we want yet more generations lost in a battle the state can never win, say yes to a regulated drug trade.