PETER BAUME. Our current drug policy is insane.

Nov 12, 2019

There is, in front of me, a book entitled “Not my family: never my child”.  The title of that book is so right. WE are on the front line. We are affected.  It is OUR families and our children who take these drugs. It is OUR children that suffer and die and cause us grief. 

WE are the victims of illicit drug use. It is OUR families who are affected and that die and and it is OUR children who have contact with criminals and OUR children who have scant regard for the police.  Illicit drugs are in every school, in every playground and in every community. Young people – our own children among them – are going to be foolish and try these drugs. It is US who grieve and rage. We want our children to be safer, and we want policy makers to do something about it, and to act now to make our children safer from the tragedy of illicit drug use.

Our present drug policies are not working.  Three million Australians use cannabis each year – and it is illegal.  But Australia has a temperate climate and there is no way of preventing the growth of cannabis.  Yes – we can find some cannabis growth and punish the growers, but we cannot prevent cannabis being grown or sold or used in this country.

There is a spreading epidemic of ice – and current laws are not preventing or containing it.  But let us be clear – there will be other drugs next year – it is not the drug that is the problem but it is the willingness of people to use drugs that is the problem.  It does not matter if the drugs are legal or illegal – people will use them. They always have. They always will – in spite of exhortations to the contrary.

There is corruption in our police and in our customs service and in our legal system, corruption related to drugs.  At one time we were told that there was so much forbidden heroin in Pentridge Gaol (so corruption probably extended to prison officers too) that it was being exported back on to the streets of St Kilda to be sold.

Bikie gangs controlling illicit drugs are waxing rich and paying no tax.  Their business model is very successful. They are subject to no controls or regulations.  They are killing those who stand in their way, often quite blatantly and in daylight. They are doing what they do, and thumbing their noses at society and at the police in the process.

Patients affected by illicit drugs are assaulting medical staff regularly in hospitals.  Go to any emergency room on a Saturday night and see the security men trying to control manic drug affected patients. Remember that those patients are our children and our neighbours, probably normal again in three days but manic and hard to manage tonight.

People are dying at music festivals from the use of illicit drugs – and present laws are not preventing this happening, and cannot prevent this from happening.  Pill testing seems to dissuade some potential users from using, and tells others that their drugs are laced with other substances. It is almost a no-brainer to allow a trial of pill testing.  It is a tragedy that governments take an ineffective and hardline view to the contrary.

There are seizures of illicit drugs – and this is good and should be applauded.  It should continue. Sadly, we seem only to capture lower level operatives and the “Mr Bigs” seem to escape unscathed.

Some of this problem is generational – with older Australians disapproving of the drugs that young Australians use, while they continue to use alcohol themselves. The young regard their parents as hypocrites.  It is another attempt by an older generation to control a younger generation – and history tells us what the result of this battle has always been. The older generation should think more about this – alcohol is a drug too.  Drug counselling made clear that the main drug of abuse in Australia is alcohol – yet policy makers seldom talk about this drug.

Laws change and so does the legality of this or that drug.  What is legal today might be illegal tomorrow – and vice versa.

Parents just want their children to be safe from illicit drugs in this changing world.

Those that make policy seem not to recognise that their policies are not working. They pour most money into prohibition, policing, prisons – and it is not working well enough. They concentrate on the seizures and ignore the other awful figures.  It might be politically convenient but, to workers in the drugs area, it seems insane. Policy makers seem not to understand that many young people despise the police and laugh at the drug laws.

We cannot do much worse.  By any measure, our current policies are not working.  It is time to look again, to go back to the drawing board, to work out if some other policy mix might not be more successful.

If we keep on with the same policies, we will get more of the same results.  The current approach IS insane.

The Hon. Emeritus Professor Peter Baume AC is a facilitator in Medicine at the University of New South Wales.  He is a physician,  former Senator,  former Minister,  former cabinet Minister,  former Professor of Community Medicine and  former university chancellor.

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