My interview in the Canberra Times about the war on drugs and my new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs. Both stories appeared on the same day written by Blake Foden:
Antony Loewenstein wants to set things straight about the global war on drugs.
The author of Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs has an intimate knowledge of the toll it has taken, having travelled from the killing fields of Honduras in Central America to key drug shipment routes in West Africa, as well as the streets of major Western cities in countries like Australia, the UK and the US where illicit drugs are ubiquitous.
His conclusion? The prohibitionist policies that governments around the world have spent trillions of dollars to enforce aren’t about ending drug use and addiction at all, and they don’t work.
“Drug use has never been higher and the violence [fuelled by the drug war] has never been worse, around the world,” Mr Loewenstein said.
“[The war on drugs] been a complete failure, and yet one could argue that the drug war has been a complete success in targeting the most vulnerable and the poor, which in my view is what the war has always been about.”
In his book, which he will launch in Canberra on Thursday, Mr Loewenstein traces what he calls the deadliest war of modern times, from its origins in Washington in 1971 through to 2019.
In the nearly 50 years since then-US president Richard Nixon unleashed the drug war by declaring drug abuse “public enemy number one”, millions have died around the world as violence and addiction have surged, but nothing has stopped the supply of drugs or the demand for them.
One battleground that has drawn recent global coverage is the Philippines, where Amnesty International described a “large-scale murdering enterprise” targeting the urban poor as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drive to stamp out drug abuse. Some of the other key global drug war locations that Mr Loewenstein visits, like Central America and West Africa, are largely hidden from international eyes because events there go mostly unreported.
Though it has one of the highest per-capita rates of illicit substance use in the world, the front line of the drug war is less obvious but still deadly in a Western country like Australia, where the public perception of drug use has shifted dramatically in recent decades.
Mr Loewenstein said many of the victims of the drug war in this country had died not simply as a result of their decision to take drugs, but seeing as drugs were illegal, there was usually no way of knowing what was in illicit substances.
That’s why he advocates for large-scale drug policy reform including the legalisation and regulation of all drugs, and why he applauds the ACT for being home to the country’s first pill-testing trials.
“What has changed with the pill-testing debate [in Australia] is that people see their own kids in the young people that are dying,” Mr Loewenstein said.
“It’s humanised the issue when the victims are middle-class kids and not people that just get dismissed as junkies in the street.
“The vast, vast majority of Australians – and people everywhere actually – who take illicit substances, do it with no problems.
“They have normal lives and normal jobs. They are healthy. They may smoke a joint or go out to a club and take an ecstasy pill or whatever. It’s become a very, very normal part of society, for better or worse.”
Mr Loewenstein acknowledged that even in a legal and regulated market, there would still be problems and people wouldn’t all “just group-hug the next day”, but the money raised by governments could be used for health and education programs.
Another thing he would love to see is a push for ethically sourced drugs, after the majority of respondents to the 2019 Global Drug Survey said they would be willing to pay more for ethically sourced cocaine.
“What a mature society would acknowledge is that drugs have always been part of society and they always will be,” he said.
“In my view, the key aim of harm minimisation needs to be finding ways to assist people who have problems with drugs rather than demonising the majority of people who never have any issues with drugs and take drugs normally, yet don’t often think about who is suffering in places like Colombia to get those drugs.”
Mr Loewenstein hoped that through his book, he would show people that legalisation and regulation around the world was a more realistic way to end the war on drugs.
“Current drug policy is only guaranteeing that more people will continue to die,” he said.
The way to ultimately stop the never-ending war on drugs that has taken a toll on millions of people worldwide is to legalise and regulate all drugs – including in Australia.
That’s the view of best-selling author Antony Loewenstein, who spent more than four years on the front lines of what he calls the deadliest war of modern times while researching and writing the new book Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.
And while Mr Loewenstein, who will launch the book in Canberra on Thursday, believes Australia will likely never be a global leader on drugs policy, he thinks the ACT is well-placed to lead reform within the country.
Mr Loewenstein acknowledged that the idea of legalising and regulating all drugs “in the current context, seems crazy”.
But he said the logical first step was legalising cannabis for personal use – something members of the ACT Legislative Assembly are already considering here after a proposal from Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson.
“I think the key reason to talk about legalising and regulating all drugs, which I clearly acknowledge is a process that won’t happen next week, is that you remove the vast bulk of the influence of criminal networks,” Mr Loewenstein told the Sunday Canberra Times.
“That is why the drug industry now, globally, is worth about half a trillion dollars every year. It’s an insane amount of money, often going to horrible criminal networks.”
Mr Loewenstein said there was growing worldwide evidence of the benefits an end to the prohibition of illicit drugs would bring. One example was a 2018 Harvard University study that found legalising drugs and instead taxing and regulating their sales would save governments in the United States alone US$106.7 billion each year.
He said the war on drugs around the world had only led to surging levels of drug addictions, and in some places, mass incarcerations and extreme violence.
“A lot of the money that would be saved by not investing in a militarised, police-led drug war and building prisons to put people in for non-violent offences would instead go into education and health,” he said.
“No one is saying, including me, that people in a legalised and regulated drug market wouldn’t have problems with drugs. Some still would.
“What I’m arguing and showing through various examples around the world is that the current model has caused so much carnage that it’s surely time to look at an alternative.”
Mr Loewenstein said most Australian politicians didn’t want to go near the issue of legalising drugs because they didn’t see it as a vote-winner, and there was typically backlash from tabloid media.
But he said the ACT had “a history of being brave” on the issue. This included proposals in the 1990s for a heroin prescription service and the country’s first safe injecting room, both of which were scuttled by opponents including then-prime minister John Howard. Safe injecting rooms have since begun operating successfully in Sydney and Melbourne, with no deaths, and the ACT government is again considering opening one.
More recently, Canberra’s Groovin the Moo music festival hosted the country’s first two pill-testing trials. At both trials, people disposed of pills that were found to contain potentially deadly chemicals.
Mr Loewenstein said he believed the legalisation of cannabis was inevitable, and the ACT’s history in leading the conversation on drug policy reform meant it was well-placed to then lead a push within Australia for wider changes.
“I would very much like to see politicians in the ACT, who have a history of being brave on this issue, advocate for a legal and regulated drug system,” he said.
Antony Loewenstein will launch Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs at the Sir Roland Wilson Building in Canberra from 6pm on September 12. The event is free but bookings are required through Eventbrite.