Bad drug policy has been good politics for several decades. We can thank US President Richard Nixon for this discovery.
Nixon knew that he faced an uphill battle to get re-elected in 1972 with the albatross of the Vietnam war hanging around his neck.
His aide John Ehrlichman suggested to the President that the elderly, white and wealthy people who had turned out in large numbers to vote for Nixon in 1968, and hated the young, poor and black would understand that a savage assault on drugs was really a ‘dog whistle’ attack on those people.
Nixon liked the idea and that was the inspiration for the President declaring a War On Drugs on 17 June 1971.
When Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, winning 49 of the 50 states, politicians around the world realised that an election magic pudding had just been invented.
Why did Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews make a Drug War announcement in March?
He was trying desperately to distract attention from his political woes. His Speaker and Deputy Speaker had been caught misusing government funds and forced to resign. All very embarrassing.
So Andrews tried to get the community to ‘not look here, look over there’. And over there was the standard War on Drugs announcement, full of fire and brimstone.
The Premier’s media release spoke of a major crackdown and even more severe penalties for illicit drugs.
Premier Andrews wasn’t the first politician in some difficulty to follow Richard Nixon’s example and throw the switch to Tough on Drugs to try to distract the public’s attention from matters that were not going so well. And he won’t be the last. But so many politicians have been crying ‘wolf’ over illicit drugs for so long that the effect is starting to wear off.
When 55% of Australians support regulating recreational cannabis, the public is clearly getting tired of the War On Drugs being used as a political strategy and wants to see this issue addressed less cynically.
Why is it so hard for a drug policy based on evidence and respectful of human rights to be accepted? The cost of those reforms has been falling. Meanwhile the cost of doing nothing has been rising, along with the evidence of massive failure.
There are many reasons why this is such a hard issue for politicians.
All reforms in Australia seem to be trapped for the time being in the national political gridlock which Australia has fallen into. Ministers in relevant law enforcement portfolios, their departments, and people employed in customs, police and prisons naturally worry about the possibility of shrinking budgets and disappearing jobs.
But other countries are starting to move, while Australia stays still.
Australia21’s latest report on the drug response, ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely’, launched on 20 March 2017 by former Premiers Jeff Kennett and Bob Carr, should kick off a lively national debate about these issues and the options for drug law reform.
Dr Alex Wodak is an Australia21 Director. From 1982 to 2012 he was Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney and he is now the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.