Alex Wodak. Endgame in the protracted drug policy debate: are we there yet?

The long running debate about illicit drugs policy has moved a great deal in the last five years. But social policy reform is a different matter from a debate. Actual reform usually takes many decades.

The recent growing consensus regarding the abject failure of a criminal justice dominated approach to drugs is very encouraging. Retired and even serving police commissioners have been lining up before the microphones to acknowledge the comprehensive failure of efforts to date. The seizure announced 16 February of 720 litres liquid methamphetamine, said to be worth $1.2 billion, represents the largest drug bust in Australia’s history. But there was little optimism that even a seizure of this size would make a difference to the market. In 2014, 91% of Australian drug users surveyed reported that ice was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain.

In 1994, I went with Ms Ann Symonds, a (then) member of the NSW parliament, to see the (then) Minister for Health, Senator Graham Richardson. My message was that the drug policy he was responsible for could never be effective. I showed him a report written by a US coast guard operator who had estimated the numbers of pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, containers, ships and planes entering the USA every year. The official had also estimated the volume of cannabis, heroin and cocaine entering the US every year. He showed that US authorities had a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack than finding most, let alone all, of the drugs entering his country.

Seventeen million passengers and several million containers arrive in Australia every year. Only three in every 1,000 containers are searched. Containers carrying frozen food have to be thawed out before they can be searched and this involves potentially considerable financial loss and inconvenience as the once frozen food has to then be discarded. Somehow Australia’s 27 thousand km coast line has to be watched 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Senator Richardson seemed to accept the logic of the presentation. As he showed us out, he suggested that Australia could not move faster than the international community would allow us to do, that the attitude of leaders of the medical profession to any change in drug policy would be critical and that change would also not be possible without widespread community support.

Twenty-two years later, the shape of future global drug policy is becoming clearer. The international drug policy consensus is now irrevocably broken. Consequently, countries now have much more freedom to design a drug policy that the community and its politicians believe is appropriate for its circumstances rather than accept the one size fits all approach required till now.

The threshold step required is to redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Several steps then follow. First, criminal sanctions for the production, sale and use of drugs will have to be reduced and, where possible, eliminated. Second, drug treatment will have to be expanded and improved to reach the same level as other health services. Third, as much of the drug market as possible will have to be regulated. Parts of the drug market are already regulated including methadone treatment for heroin users, the needle and syringe program and Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. Fourth, the community will have to ensure that life for young people should not require intoxication to be bearable. This means reducing poverty and improving the housing, education and employment conditions for our young people, especially our disadvantaged youth. When life is bleak and without hope, a few hours of chemical vacation becomes quite attractive. Policy change should occur in small increments with rigorous evaluation of policy effectiveness and adverse effects.

It is easy to dismiss the complexities of a political resolution of our current drug policy mess. But our politicians have at times achieved wonders. In the 1980s, politicians from all the major parties put aside their differences and worked together to prevent Australia being over run by HIV. Australian politicians also excelled themselves in tobacco control. These were world-class achievements against huge obstacles. Australians owe our politicians a debt of gratitude. The introduction of heroin-assisted treatment in Denmark was brought about by all the country’s political parties agreeing privately to jointly support the decision. The political gridlock of recent years in Australia is not encouraging but that will eventually pass.

The costs of political action on drug policy are falling while the costs of inaction are rising. The time for ever-more gesture politics on drug policy is slowly coming to an end. When dealing with communities locked into dysfunctional policies, just as when dealing with alcohol or drug dependent patients or loved ones, it is critical to retain a sense of hope.

It is important to remember our history. Australia permitted medicinal use of heroin until importation and production was banned in 1953. Edible opium was taxed and regulated in Australia until 1906. Medicinal cannabis was used lawfully in Australia until the 1970s. In the US, Coca Cola contained cocaine until 1903.

The required changes in drug policy are substantial. But we and other countries have made equally substantial changes before. Faced with such momentous change it is easy to convince ourselves prospectively that the reforms required are unachievable but we may end up reflecting in retrospect that change was inevitable.

In a recent Essential poll (16 February), 68% thought the ‘Federal Government should do more’ about illicit drugs followed by obesity (57%), food safety (50%), smoking (46%), Zika virus (36%), HIV (34%) and Ebola (27%).

Respondents also rated illicit drugs (44%) as their most serious concern followed by food safety (26%), obesity (25%), smoking (23%), Zika virus (16%), HIV (14%) and Ebola (12%). This suggests that voters expect Australian governments to act effectively on illicit drugs sooner rather than later.

Dr Alex Wodak AM is President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

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