How the drug war targets the most vulnerable

My interview in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age on the drug war and my new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, by Kerrie O’Brien:

The Morrison Government’s plan to drug test welfare recipients is counterproductive, futile and immoral, says Antony Loewenstein, who has spent the past five years researching the war on drugs globally.

“Virtually every expert who has been asked about this either in Australia or around the world where there are similar policies internationally has said it doesn’t work. And it aims to punish the most vulnerable in society,” he says.

An Australian journalist based in Jerusalem, Loewenstein has written a book, Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, which was launched this week.

He argues a far more effective use of government money would be to fund the frontline organisations working to help people struggling with drug addiction. Spending less on law enforcement and more on education would also be far more logical and beneficial.

Rather than motivating people to find work, this type of policy is modern-day scapegoating, Loewenstein says. The plan is likely to further marginalise these people, worsen drug addiction and push people into criminality to support their drug habits.

In the book, Loewenstein quotes Australia’s former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer, whose views on drugs changed dramatically from the time he took on that position to his retirement. “The current law enforcement, prohibition approach to drug policy has been an abject failure. We haven’t reduced supply. We haven’t done anything about reducing price. We haven’t reduced demand,” Palmer says.

Ultimately, Palmer opposes drug-testing welfare recipients. He also backs pill testing at music festivals, supports legalising marijuana, wants more safe injecting centres and supports more money for harm minimisation programs. The political challenge of changing drug laws was what scared politicians, Palmer says, with many fearing the media and public backlash.

Research for Pills, Powder and Smoke took Loewenstein to the parts of the world that are critical to supplying the western world with cocaine, namely Honduras – for the US – and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa for the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as the Philippines, the United States, Britain and Australia.

“The drug war is principally a war on the poor and minorities and it always has been, across the world including here. This is just the latest example of that,” he says.

Problematic drug use in western countries has never been higher and Australia has some of the highest rates per capita of illicit drug use in the world. Australians are spending close to $10 billion a year on illegal drugs, including cannabis and methamphetamines, he says.

Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. It has since seen a decrease in HIV infections and drug-related deaths, and consumption rates have dropped in the most at-risk group, 15-24 year olds. It’s a policy advocated by many who work in drug and alcohol treatment programs and supported by Loewenstein. “The sexiness or allure of illegal drugs was removed; they’re now apart of normal life, ignored or mostly consumed safely.”

Many factors feed into misinformation about the war on drugs, he says, including popular culture, which romanticises the drug trade in shows such as Netflix’s Narcos, about cocaine in Columbia in the 1980s. Likewise, there are drug-trade books aplenty, and drug-related tourism is thriving, with visitors to Medellin able to tour Pablo Escobar’s favourite haunts.

Loewenstein says the war on drugs has been the most costly, destructive war of the last half-century and he is convinced there is a better way.

“It’s beyond time to imagine and put in place governmental policies that would treat drugs and people who use them in a way that doesn’t stigmatise and demonise them, because that’s what’s killing so many people.”

ABC broadcaster Jon Faine will host a panel discussion called Is it time to legalise drugs? on Monday, September 9 at the Melbourne Town Hall, with speakers including Loewenstein, Fiona Patten MP, Julian Burnside and former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer. See for tickets.