Alex Wodak. The toxic combination of illicit drugs and politics: Australia confronts ice

Apr 17, 2015


John Ehrlichman, the Watergate conspirator, claimed to have come up with the idea of waging a war on drugs while he was a member of President Nixon’s ‘Committee for the Re-Election of the President’, wonderfully referred to as ‘CREEP’. The aim, Ehrlichman told Nixon, was to ensure that the elderly wealthy white voters who turned out in such large numbers to vote for Nixon in 1968 would turn out again in 1972 on polling day. The plan was to appeal to their contempt for the young, poor and black using illicit drugs as the perfect ‘dog whistle’. Despite the albatross of the Vietnam War hanging around his neck in 1972, Nixon won 49 of the 50 states in a landslide victory. Politicians around the world took note. An electoral magic pudding had just been discovered.

In the early 1970s, US Congress established a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse but President Nixon got to appoint most of the members. Nixon stacked the Commission with people he thought would support the sorts of recommendations he wanted. When Nixon heard that the Commission was leaning to recommend ending cannabis prohibition he called in the chair, Raymond Shafer. The Watergate tapes recorded the conversation: Nixon: “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels and what we’re planning to do, would make your Commission just look bad as hell….Keep your Commission in line.” Towards the end of the meeting Nixon advised Shafer that he had not heard yet from the committee that was considering Shafer’s application to become a Federal judge. In the end Nixon rejected the Commission’s recommendations and Shafer did not get the judicial position he had applied for.

Fast forward to 5 September 1989 when US President George HW Bush addressed his nation on television and held up a bag of crack cocaine from a recent arrest close to the White House. President Bush used the address to announce a major ramping up of the war on drugs but he did not tell his fellow Americans that, on instructions, law enforcement officials had lured the reluctant black crack seller to Lafayette Park, near the White House. President Bush was under considerable pressure at the time as opposition rose to his economic restructuring.

On 8 April, 2015, Prime Minister Abbott, also under considerable political pressure, announced a new Ice Task Force. Yet not so long ago, in December 2014 the Abbott government had established a new drug advisory body, theAustralian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs (ANACAD) whose top priority was to come up with effective responses to ice. ANACAD had earlier taken over from the Australian National Council on Drugs.

For decades drug policy has been a very useful prop for those seeking election or re-election or a boost to sagging opinion polls. But communities around the world are starting to be a lot more discerning about fear-based political machinations involving drugs. In the USA, several different polling organisations  have found that a growing majority now supports regulating ‘marijuana’ (i.e. cannabis). In Australia, support for once controversial but pragmatic interventions like needle syringe programs and supervised injecting facilities continues to slowly climb.

A few years ago, some retired Australian Police Commissioners started commenting that our drug law enforcement was more effective than previously and about as effective as it ever could be but still the impact on the drug trade was negligible. Now even some serving Police Commissioners have made similar comments.

The community’s favourite drug intervention is education. But the results of mass and school based education campaigns are pretty modest. The expectations of the community and politicians about the impact of drug education are unrealistic.

Drug treatment has worthwhile benefits but improvements are usually much slower than the dramatic progress the community wants. But drug treatment in Australia, as in most countries, has a limited capacity, range of options and flexibility. During alcohol prohibition in the USA (1920-33), treatment for people with alcohol problems disappeared. Similarly, drug treatment struggles in countries where drugs are defined primarily as a criminal justice issue. Australia will make very little progress with ice while most people badly wanting help have to wait in a queue for six months as they mostly do now.

Although drug problems are found across the economic and social spectrum, they are more common in severely disadvantaged populations. Also, countries with greater inequality, like Australia, seem to have worse illicit drug problems. Support for reducing inequality in Australia and other countries is growing with the case so far made largely on the grounds of improving the economy. But a fair case can also be made that less inequality would reduce some of our social problems including illicit drug use.

The $64 million question that has not been asked about ice is why the drug market started providing this drug in the first place. For me the answer seems clear. Drug prohibition encourages more dangerous drugs to replace less dangerous drugs just as bush cannabis morphed into skunk and then Spice, powder amphetamine morphed into ice and ecstasy morphed into related but much more dangerous compounds.

We haven’t got there yet but Australia is slowly moving to acknowledge that it’s not so much illicit drugs that are dangerous as having a drug market that is completely unregulated. Economic forces ensure a vibrant drug black market while political forces till now have precluded a pragmatic arrangement. In the short term, political forces usually dominate but in the long term, economic forces prevail.


Dr Alex Wodak AM, President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Board Member, Australia21

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