It seems self-evident to many that the use of illicit drugs is evil. But why? When pressed, the most common response to this question is that illicit drug use is evil because it is against the law. So the next question is ‘why is the use of certain drugs illegal?’ State parliaments in Australia started banning the use of certain drugs even before Federation. In the last half century, Australia signed and ratified three international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988) which required domestic parliaments to pass laws imposing criminal sanctions on people who use or traffic drugs.
In the late 19th century, opium became the first drug banned in Australia. But opium was initially only prohibited if it was smoked. At that time, Chinese people on the goldfields were the only people in Australia smoking opium. The majority of Australians at that time had access to edible opium which remained lawful and taxed until it was prohibited in 1906. Edible opium is said to have remained readily available after the 1906 ban but the Commonwealth lost an annual income of £ 60,000. Was opium smoking acceptable before it was banned and evil afterwards? Likewise, was edible opium acceptable until 1906 but did it only become evil afterwards?
Australia was represented at the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs which agreed to ban the non-medical use of the opium, coca and cannabis plants and drugs derived from them. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Government banned the importation of cannabis in 1926 and requested the states to pass legislation banning cannabis. Victoria (1928), South Australia (1934), NSW (1935), Queensland (1937), Western Australia (1950) and Tasmania (1959) complied. If cannabis use in Australia is now evil, when did it become so? Was it evil when Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard used cannabis in their youth to become relaxed and comfortable? Was it evil when US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama used cannabis in their youth?
Following international pressure, believed to have originated in the USA, Australia banned the production and importation of heroin in May 1953. Existing heroin stocks could be used medicinally till exhausted but could not be replenished. The decision to ban medicinal heroin was criticised at the time by the then Director General of the Commonwealth Department of Health, the Presidents of several Royal Colleges (Surgeons, Physicians and Obstetricians andGynaecologists) and the President of the British Medical Association (before the Australian Medical Association was established). So if the use of heroin is now evil, was it already evil when used medicinally before 1953 or did it only become so when used recreationally after it was prohibited?
If the use of illicit drugs is not intrinsically evil, then we have to ask why their sale and purchase is evil? The use of illicit drugs might well be unwise, even recklessly unwise, without such use constituting evil. Most members of the community will need little convincing that the injection into a vein of an unsterile powder of uncertain constituents and strength bought from a stranger is extremely unwise. But is it evil?
In 1895, Oscar Wilde received a 2-year prison sentence with hard labour for sodomy. Alan Turing, who had contributed substantially to the Allied defeat of the Nazis in WW II and the development of computers, was found by a British court in 1952 to have had sex with another man. Turing committed suicide rather than face the consequences. Homosexuality was considered a crime when Wilde and Turing were alive although it has since been removed from the criminal code. Same gender marriage is now lawful in the UK. Did Wilde and Turing commit evil acts even though today the same acts are no longer considered a crime? Queen Elizabeth has apologised for the way Turing was treated. It is not just the law and the community which has changed its view about the nature of homosexuality. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified homosexuality as a lifestyle rather than a disease.
A vigorous international debate about the effectiveness of drug law enforcement is now growing. Senior drug law enforcement figures now increasingly acknowledge the futility of efforts to restrict the availability of illicit drugs. But the real debate we should be having is about the fairness and justice of laws which criminalise the use of certain drugs (but not other drugs which create much more harm).
In 2008, (then) Father Peter Norden noted that the gospel said ‘When I was hungry, you gave me to eat, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was in prison you visited me.’ Norden argued that “Jesus today would have included another couple of phrases, perhaps, ‘When you were mentally ill, you walked with me, when you were addicted, you stood by me. ‘ Not that you walked away from me or sat in judgement of me”. (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/faith-and-the-fix/3174376#transcript) Walking away from and judging people struggling with drug problems worked well politically for decades. But it has been a disaster for many people who use drugs, their families and communities. This doesn’t even begin to describe its impact on countries which have been the source of illicit drugs or through which such drugs have been transited.
Whether or not our current drug laws are effective, or whether alternative policies might be less ineffective are important questions. But the most fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is whether our drug laws are fair and just.
Dr Alex Wodak AM is President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.