My essay appears in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald:
The only way to ensure a safer Australian society is to legalise and regulate all drugs. This could save lives, earn huge revenue for the state and diminish the power of criminal gangs that make billions of dollars annually from the production and sale of illicit substances.
This doesn’t mean a free-for-all where heroin, cocaine, opioids, ice or methamphetamines will be easily available at the local supermarket but a considered way to tackle both soft and riskier drugs that doesn’t infantilise users.
No country on earth has yet legalised and regulated all drugs so it’s high time that Australia embarks on a sensible debate towards necessary change.
When radio broadcaster Alan Jones agrees with the NSW Bar Association and Uniting Church, backers of the successful King’s Cross medically supervised injecting centre, to decriminalise the personal use of all drugs including ice, it’s clear that the prohibition mantra is being challenged like never before.
After a horrific summer that saw the death of many young Australians ingesting dangerous pills, the NSW coronial inquest into the tragedies begins this week. Pill testing could have saved these lives. The process is proven from countless trials in Australia, the US and Britain.
I’ve spent the last four years reporting in countries that are being destroyed by the Washington-inspired drug war. From Honduras to Guinea-Bissau, the Philippines to Australia and the US to Britain, I’ve investigated how drug policy is used to marginalise minorities and the poor. Regulating and legalising drugs has the potential to fundamentally rewrite the narrative for a fairer and healthier world.
Canada, many US states and Uruguay have legalised marijuana. Portugal has decriminalised all drugs since 2001 and deaths from drug overdoses have massively declined. For the last 18 years, Portugal has viewed drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal justice problem. The Global Commission on Drugs, comprised of former leaders from South America, Europe and Africa, released a 2018 report that called for the “responsible control of drugs” through legalisation.
The Global Drug Survey, the world’s biggest annual study of drug use with over 165,000 participants, this year included a question on whether users would want to buy ethically sourced cocaine. An overwhelming number said that they would. One of Britain’s leading drug reform groups, Transform, recently announced that it will publish a book on how to legally regulate cocaine and other stimulants. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ecstasy are increasingly seen as one possible method to help with post-traumatic stress and depression.
The regulation and legalisation of drugs is vital, writes Cesar Gaviria, the former president of Colombia, a country that has lost at least 220,000 people from a futile drug war in the last 50 years. Today it remains the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. “It’s not because drugs are safe but precisely because they are risky and we seek to manage and reduce those risks”, Gaviria says.
What would legalisation look like in Australia? Injectable heroin would only be available through medical prescription, an option that already exists in many European countries. Pharmacies would sell medium-risk drugs such as ecstasy in non-branded packaging while enforcing quantity and age controls as well as offering health and consumption advice. Licensed premises for sale and consumption, akin to a bottle shop, would sell cannabis and magic mushrooms while adhering to a strict regulatory authority. Never forget that legal alcohol is still the most destructive drug.
Regulated drugs means that substances would be cleaner and less likely to cause user harm. The state or approved private companies must produce and closely monitor the chemical make-up of drugs. Advertising cannot be allowed. If anybody fell victim to addiction or harm from drug taking, they would have a clear pathway to state-supported treatment.
Because the Australian states and federal government could raise huge amounts of revenue from legal drug sales, this money would be spent on health, education and infrastructure. Look at the US where increasing numbers of states have legalised marijuana and are already investing the tax revenue back into communities.
Australia will inevitably embrace pill testing because it’s sensible public policy that minimises harm. Recall that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews spent years opposing a safe injecting centre in Victoria before finally seeing sense last year and its success in saving lives is clear. However, pill testing is just one, relatively small tool in the arsenal of shifting the drug debate.
Any advocate of a regulated and legalised drug market should not ignore the fact that substances will still kill people. They will destroy families. Overdoses will happen. Addiction can occur. This isn’t a panacea to the problem; it’s a necessary corrective to decades of failed prohibition that has enriched cartels at the expense of the wider community. Australia could be a world leader in designing a regulatory framework that severely restricts access to drugs while pumping far more money into education and treatment.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based Australian journalist and the author of the forthcoming book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.