Current drug policy is based on the unrealistic belief that we can stamp out possession and use of illicit drugs, much like prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America. It also fails to account for the harm caused by our strictly punitive policy approach.
Illicit drugs harm people and families. Many individuals lose their homes, their assets, their health, their self- esteem and their families if they become addicted. Some recover too and that is why we offer treatment. The effects are sometimes disastrous and no one should deny this. So the opponents of current system (like me) should be ready to acknowledge that illicit drugs are harmful (but so are licit drugs) and that parents, who want to protect their children, are right to be scared and worried and to want to do the best for their children, including keeping those children away from illicit drugs.
But the arrangements we have made to control illicit drug use have harms and costs too – and it ill behoves those who defend the current system to deny this – as some of them seem to do. There are great harms from the current system. We have seen corruption in our justice system – corrupt prison officers, corrupt customs officers, corrupt magistrates, corrupt police. We do not want corruption because it weakens vital organs of our organised public life and because it goes wider than illicit drug use and threatens our whole society. Today we see drugs of uncertain content and uncertain dosage at dance and music functions – and we have politicians who refuse to agree to drug testing at these venues. The young are entitled to know what they are taking – even when the drugs concerned are illegal, We want to keep them alive and well – even while they break our laws. The people taking the illicit drugs are often adults too – and often make good decisions about themselves. They would make even better decisions with more information – for example, a lot of dangerous drugs were thrown out (and not used) at a recent music festival in Canberra.
Our children have contempt for our systems of justice – they regard the police as corrupt too often. We want our young to trust and to believe in the systems of protection and justice we have set in place – at present they do not too often. We do not want our young to despise and dislike the protective organs we have put in place.
Today we see criminals waxing rich off the misery of illicit drug use by others. We see bikie gangs engaged in the illicit drug industry in a major way – and we see executions and damage to individuals from “turf wars” over illicit drug use. The criminal groups pay no tax on their drug activities and so make no contribution to our common needs. For them, arrests and court expenses are just a cost of business and are factored in to their business model.
We see our beautiful young condemned to mix with criminals to get the cannabis they want –cannabis is a mass use drug in spite of our laws and our prohibition. Millions use it every year. It makes us realise just how ineffective our laws and our huffing and puffing have been.
It is as if we learned nothing from the American experiment in outlawing the use of alcohol a Century or so ago. The Americans achieved the entrenchment of the Mafia as many citizens continued to seek alcohol – if they could not obtain it legally, then they went elsewhere. The Americans are still paying for that foolish experiment. What the Americans did with alcohol we are doing with many illicit drugs – and we have been doing it, with mounting evidence of the ineffectiveness of the policy, for three quarters of a century.
People use and want drugs.
Every school has illicit drugs. Young people know where illicit drugs can be obtained, contrary to the law. The often know much more than we parents think they know.
And we are hypocrites anyhow. A famous cartoon showed a middle-aged man smoking and drinking alcohol and decrying drug use by the young. We just use different drugs – which we then make legal at the same time as we try to prevent different drug use by the young.
The question we have to answer concerns the proper balance that should exist between these different sets of harms – one set of harms from the drugs themselves, and one set of harms from the arrangements we have made to control illicit drug use. One harm is visible and the other, real as it is, is largely hidden from view. The whole question needs re-visiting. After all, there has been time – perhaps three quarters of a century for the current system, based as it is on prohibition and punishment, to work. If it has not worked so far, it is unlikely to work with more sanctions, more punishment and more prohibition. To argue for more of the same is to tread the road of the frightened zealot.
We have the balance wrong. People are going to use these drugs. Let us pick up the victims and help them overcome what they have done. Their lives are worth preserving; their social participation is important and valuable. Let us recognise that tomorrow’s drugs will be more potent and will scare us – but let us not be put off because of that. Let us help people rather than punishing them. We know that the merchants of illicit drugs are often a step ahead of rules and laws – again that is no reason not to re-visit the whole area.
The question of legality and illegality are questions of fashion too. What was illegal at one time is legal at another time, and what was legal at one time is illegal at another.
Punishment has not achieved what we are seeking. It will not work. Going down that path will not work. Let us have policies based on the needs of people and let us care for people. We can and should do better.
The Honourable Emeritus Professor Peter Baume A.C. is a facilitator in Medicine at the University of New South Wales. He is a physician, a former Senator, a former Minister, a former cabinet Minister, a former Professor of Community Medicine and a former university chancellor.