The facts are clear. For over half a century our governments have relied heavily on law enforcement to curb the drug trade and reduce drug use. However, despite huge funding, ever increasing levels of police effectiveness and genuine effort, and the imposition of very lengthy prison terms for serious drug offences, the drug trade has just kept getting bigger, more dangerous and more prosperous. The simple over-riding fact is that, with the best intentions in the world, as former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay said when head of then PM Tony Abbott’s Ice Task Force, we cannot arrest and imprison our way out of our present dilemma. We must be prepared to try new ideas and approaches.
I am not suggesting “going soft” on drugs but rather “getting smarter” about drugs, adopting a safer, saner approach which provides some control over the currently totally uncontrolled illicit drug marketplace.
If we are going to have a zero tolerance approach it should be a zero tolerance to the needless loss of any young Australian’s life.
We need to remember that the central plank of our current illicit drugs policy is “harm minimisation”. Sadly, on any measure, we have failed miserably in our attempts to achieve this aim and indeed many aspects of current policy actually aggravate harms rather than reduce them.
So what sensibly can be done or genuinely considered? I believe the first thing we need to do is stop the war. The War on Drugs or “Tough on Drugs” headlines set the scene for conflict. I understand the reason why the headlines were used, but they have become part of the problem.
I was AFP Commissioner when John Howard launched his “Tough on Drugs” policy – and the AFP benefitted from the money and focus on supply reduction. But John Howard also allocated very significant money and emphasis to diversion and treatment programs. Although it branded its drug policy as ‘Tough on Drugs’, the Howard Government was much more pragmatic than that. It was the first Commonwealth government to provide funding to the states and territories to improve their needle syringe programs. It also funded the diversion of many people convicted of drug offences from the criminal justice system to drug treatment and generously funded harm reduction in Asia to stop HIV spreading, from people who inject drugs, to the general community.
We must build on this positive initiative. The challenge is for us to cease pigeon-holing people into competing camps and start thinking collectively about how to improve the state of play and actively move to change the conversation, to create a climate where it is safe to talk about drugs, where parents feel comfortable having the conversation with their kids over a backyard Bar-B-Q or around the dinner table. Not even the strongest conservative could be happy with the results we are currently achieving or, for that matter, have ever achieved under our tough on drugs mantle, despite the effort, the money and the good intentions that have gone into driving it.
However, it is unproductive to call for change unless you have some ideas about what that change may look like and how it might be achieved. I would like, therefore, to suggest a few options that I believe could be discussed and considered in any genuine review or conversation.
As a starting point:
(1) Be prepared to analyse the actual results achieved under our zero tolerance – Tough on Drugs – approach and honestly assess the results achieved – good, bad and ugly;
(2) Recognise that, to improve its effectiveness, Australia’s illicit drug policy may need to be reframed as primarily a health and safety issue, with policing playing a strong, targeted support role, aimed at the organised criminal marketplace where the benefits of police intervention are highest and the risks and dangers, particularly to the most vulnerable in our society, are lowest.
(3) Develop strategies to better understand the health and well-being dangers to social users and addicts which arise from them purchasing (often tainted or corrupted) drugs from a totally unregulated black market and then being treated as criminals for doing so.
(4) Have the courage to trial new approaches but do so gradually and incrementally, with care taken to ensure that the community understands the research and the reasons and benefits underpinning the changes and supports the journey as it unfolds.
Incremental steps could include:
- Adopting a firm national strategy that puts the health and safety of young people first and foremost on the agenda and ceases criminalising our children for simple use and possession of drugs.
- Introducing a policy that clearly distinguishes between anti-social behaviour and the drug use that may have contributed to it; punishing the criminal behaviour – but treating the drug use.
- Implementing a policy that aims to engage with and support drug users, not isolate and punish them.
- Agree, nationally, to commence trial drug testing of pills at festivals and similar public gatherings with a view to encouraging users to –
- become more aware of the quality and toxicity of the drug they are planning to use, and the dangers the drugs may pose,
- Minimise or reduce potential harms and create an environment to change behaviours.
- And to assess the results.
- Increase funding of treatment options for people with drug use and addiction problems to a level sufficient to create the capacity, quality, and flexibility of treatment options to meet realistic demand.
- Consider the establishment – on a trial basis – of ‘Controlled Drug Monitoring Rooms’ to assist in containing, managing and reducing episodes of drug abuse and the consequent likely harms and better educating or informing drug users of the dangers inherent in their behaviour.
Of course, any review and reform process must include a strong strategy to engage with the public and community support will be crucial to the achievement of meaningful improvement in drug policy outcomes. Unquestionably, perceptions of community fear drive political resistance to change. As a leading European politician said some years ago: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we do it”.
The potential benefits of a genuine community conversation are, however, almost endless. To engage through open dialogue in an holistic assessment of the state of play within Australia; to explore and examine the linkages between such issues as mental health, domestic violence, homelessness, chronic unemployment and drug use and addiction, would be an exercise with no down-side, one from which we could only learn valuable lessons.
Public policy should be informed by open debate. Indeed isn’t this what democracy is all about?
I may well be wrong in the specific options I have outlined; there may be better ways, but I know I am right in saying that standing still cannot be an option.
Mick Palmer is a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.