A careful assessment of our policy towards currently illegal drugs and our struggle with the trade in these drugs brings forth a somber but frank conclusion about the war on drugs. It should stop.
We need to cease our reliance on the criminal law, unthinking blanket prohibition and decriminalise a wide variety of now illegal substances (drugs). Instead, we need to manage those drugs and their use, in the same way as we do other intoxicants and drugs.
Where we went wrong
In the middle of the last century we took an ill thought out step in the wrong direction to deal with a general concern about drug use or intoxication in our community. Those concerns were based upon reasonable ideas about public disorder arising from intoxication, as well as narrow ethical or religious values about human behaviour. We took our lead from Britain and the United States, not realising that there, a variety of forces unwittingly came together to convince law makers and the public that there was something inherently evil and morally deficient in the use of drugs.
The outcome was drug prohibition and the formation of new law enforcement agencies to tackle the so-called ‘problem’. Recent research has clearly shown that the actions and outcomes can be traced back to; religious intolerance and bigotry combined with racist and xenophobic attitudes towards people of any colour, their culture, spiritual practices and their preferred intoxicants (Lupien 1995 et al). It was certainly not white people who were now the primary targets of the new laws.
Australia followed suit, as we frequently do, without thinking even if we had any such concerns or problems. After all, they had been around for decades or centuries before and nobody seemed to be overly concerned. The targets of the American laws were actually Hispanics, Black people, people of Asian and eastern origins and for good measure included perceived cultural deviants in the arts and music.
The protagonists for such policy found easy bed-mates in the temperance movement and the subsequent overreach of such policy was prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s. This was quickly reversed in the early 1930s because the outcome – organized crime, civic violence and the corruption of state and public officials – was worse than the problem.
We also forgot about these failures even after the 1960s again opened up the west to alternative non-white cultures and intoxicant use. In response, out of fear and ignorance and simple racial bigotry, we doubled down on the same failure with the same outcomes ever since.
Some illicit drugs have beneficial uses
Ignored in this rush to moral judgement and action was the fact that we now denied to society and industry a wide variety of products, a lot having more than just a pharmacological value. Two examples, Heroin, for effective pain relief, or, in the case of the Cannabis plant, a common crop that once produced paper (the American Constitution is written upon paper from this plant), oil seeds and cellulose feed stock. Cannabis plants produce (per acre) up to 20 times more cellulose product than raw timber from a cut hardwood forest (US Forestry and Agriculture, US Senate 1910).
Drug policy failure
Drug law enforcement has clearly done nothing to stop the supply or use of drugs, nor reduced their price. Perversely, it has led to the substitution and proliferation of far more toxic and harmful substitutes, made from specialised industrial chemicals. Ice (methamphetamine) is a prime example.
There is no such thing as drug addiction. Drug dependence, which does exist, is a very different problem. A lot of our fellow citizens, about 20%, indulge and use drugs for various reasons, including stress, anxiety, depression, pain, fun and excitement. This use profile (or market characteristics) has remained consistent over time and across most age cohorts over time. Each generation has more or less that percentage of people who will do it for awhile and then stop. Some keep it up and some sadly die prematurely from using a toxically tainted product.
Most people do not get intoxicated in a way that damages their lives, endangers public order or the social fabric. We need to stop interfering in people’s lives when no serious harm is threatened.
The price of illegal drugs has not varied, despite all the law enforcement action, arrests, expensive trials and repeated incarceration for drug offences. The market is adaptable, flexible and sufficiently attractive to regenerate and continue uninterrupted, to allow new and old suppliers to enter and leave without significant impact on demand or supply. Supply and demand of illicit drugs, and their price, have remained steady for a very long time. Law enforcement through market interdiction and supply disruption has clearly not made a difference, nor had any lasting or real impact.
A well-known feature of products and markets in economics is substitution and this feature is also readily apparent in the illegal drug market as well. Temporary supply restrictions are easily met with other substances until supply or new producers and sellers enter the market. Participants may change over time, but the market remains largely unaffected.
We fail to understand the nature of how illicit drugs are produced. Most come from simple agricultural products and growing methods, often from crops that are valuable to poor people in undeveloped countries. Even synthetic drugs are easily produced.
Prohibiting some illicit drugs is the very thing that makes them profitable and attractive to criminals. Because the transactional currency is effectively always black money, it attracts a host of criminals and other violent groups to whom such a form of funds and currency is worthwhile and for whom risk is irrelevant. Current drug policy has in this way inadvertently funded civil wars, terrorism and violent insurrections across the globe, causing us to then spend untold trillions of dollars to combat the catastrophic results, failed states and quasi narco-states such as Mexico.
We spend hundreds of millions on policing activity directed at drug enforcement (about AU$600 million in Australia and $6 billion in the US). Inadvertent additional “costs” include serious drug related corruption within the police force. In NSW alone, there have been four Royal Commissions into drugs and police since the 1970s.
Specialist agencies have also been required to deal with the more talented and robust entrepreneurial criminal enterprises. Hundreds of millions are spent on the Justice and Court Systems to process these people, and then on the prisons to hold them. Meanwhile, organised crime continues to develop and flourish.
About 80% of prisoners are there because of something they did associated with illicit drugs. The majority of property crime is drug related. Insurance companies pass the cost back to the consumer.
Chronically violent or antisocial (criminals) will always exist in society. For them, rehabilitation may not be possible. We would improve society’s wellbeing and sense of peace and order by concentrating on them, rather than drug enforcement.
Regulation rather than prohibition
For a miserably smaller sum by comparison to what we spend on drug enforcement, we could instead let a drug and alcohol bureaucracy manage and regulate what are now illegal drugs. We do it for alcohol and tobacco, so why not a wide range of other drugs?
Let’s recognise that illicit drugs will continue to be used, and just regulate the drug market and the health impacts, accepting that they cannot be eradicated totally.
An excessive focus on drug law enforcement has proven to be a policy failure. This is not just because it has failed to impact meaningfully on the use of illicit drugs and to reduce harm, but also because it has unwittingly fostered corruption and organised crime, and had many other unintended consequences.
We would do well to learn from drug reform measures in countries like Portugal.
Michael Hart is a former senior Commonwealth Public Servant, ASIO intelligence analyst and Chief Analyst of the NSW ICAC.