You may have seen Peter Dutton's (opposition health spokesman) recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled 'Soft stance on drugs a dangerous catalyst' which opposed the decriminalisation of drugs.
Below is Dr Alex Wodak's AM, (President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney) response to the points made by Dutton.
Dr Wodak's comments are in bold.
Soft stance on drugs a dangerous catalyst
Sydney Morning Herald
May 28, 2012
As the opposition health spokesman, I am acutely aware of the harm caused by illicit drugs. As a former police officer, I contributed to this difficult fight in the real world. As a father I understand how dear children are to parents no matter their circumstances.
A recent report by the non-profit group Australia21 advocates decriminalisation with the strongly emotive title The Prohibition of Illicit Drugs Is Killing and Criminalising Our Children and We Are All Letting it Happen.
# [AW] The Australia21 report argued that our drug policy, heavily reliant on drug law enforcement, has failed abjectly and called for a debate about policy options. Contrary to Mr Dutton's comment here, the report did not advocate 'decriminalisation'.
I strongly oppose ending illicit drug prohibition because it would be a dreadful experiment with the future of our children, who are the very fabric of our nation. I contend that the decriminalisation of illicit drugs would be more likely to kill and criminalise children and we should not let it happen.
As my contrary words demonstrate, neither side has a monopoly on emotive language. Before addressing the substance of this debate, it is worthwhile considering the tone.
Many arguments in the Australia21 report unfortunately infer that supporters of decriminalisation are experienced, scientific and caring and that opponents supposedly mobilise fear, are callous to the human cost and beholden to the "drug law enforcement" industry.
I caution against automatically characterising participants in this debate as more informed, reasoned, caring or noble simply because of the position they take.
# [AW] The Australia21 report was accepted by the Board of the organisation which included a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. The report was largely based on a Roundtable discussion which included a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, two former Commonwealth Ministers for Health, a former state Director of Public Prosecution, a former Chief Minister, a former state Premier, many of Australia's leading drugs researchers and clinicians, parents who had lost children to drugs and two young people. The report came to the same general conclusion as the 2011 report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy which included former Presidents of four countries, a former UN Secretary General, a former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve and a former US Secretary of State.
I would also caution on use of case studies from other nations as proof for the decriminalisation case. Given the significant economic, legal and cultural differences between Australia and nations with divergent drug policies, decriminalisation examples are often poor templates for a complex issue. Indigenous Bolivians chewing coca leaf are of little policy relevance to an Australian teenager injecting heroin.
# [AW] The Roundtable discussion which informed the report focussed on developments in Western Europe, North and Latin America. Indigenous people in Bolivia have chewed coca leaf for at least centuries and with minimal harmful effects. This was scarcely referred to in the Roundtable discussion and report.
Support for decriminalisation of illicit drugs relies on questionable assertions, including that law enforcement is ineffective, that drug harm is predominantly caused by criminal law and that decriminalisation would solve existing illicit drug problems without creating worse unintended consequences.
# [AW] The notion that drug law enforcement is relatively ineffective was supported at the launch of the report by Mr Mick Palmer, former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, who noted that police are better resourced than ever, better trained than ever, more effective than ever and have had minimal impact on the drug trade. 600 world leaders signed an open letter in 9 June 1998 in the New York Times arguing that the that 'the global war on drugs was causing more harm than drug abuse itself'. In 2005 Poland repealed Draconian drug laws which had been introduced in 2000. The (conservative) President who had introduced the new punitive policy in 2000, repealed these laws in 2005 and has recently joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The more liberal approach to drug policy in Switzerland and Portugal in the last 20 years has had many benefits and no serious adverse effects.
Law enforcement has not failed, it's just not 100 per cent of the answer. We need a pluralistic approach. Specific measures such as quarantining welfare payments and treatment programs can assist families to survive while battling addiction. More broadly economic growth is vital in addressing illicit drugs and many other social problems. Employment provides personal meaning and financial means to reduce the likelihood of social problems.
# [AW] Unfortunately there is extensive and growing evidence that Draconian approaches have few benefits and many serious adverse effects. The more punitive approach to cannabis offenders in WA was compared to the more liberal approach in SA in the 1990s. There was no difference in use of cannabis but the WA offenders were more likely to have suffered severe and unintended negative effects of the law.
Law enforcement does achieve significant results and is not yet at its peak of effectiveness. Enforcement can and does reduce supply. Reduction in supply not only reduces the availability but can also increase price, resulting in reduced consumption.
# [AW] Where is the evidence that 'law enforcement achieves significant results'? In Australia in 2011, 86% of drug users said that obtaining heroin was 'easy' or 'very easy' while 93% reported that obtaining hydroponic cannabis was 'easy' or 'very easy'. The assertion that law enforcement is not yet at the peak of its effectiveness is merely an expression of hope, not an argument. Where is the evidence that drug law enforcement achieves a sustained increase in the price of street drugs? The price of street heroin and cocaine decreased by more than 80% in the USA in the last 20 years.
Just as economic challenges require constant reform, law enforcement always has a new horizon. For example, proceeds of crime action. Seizing the assets of drug traffickers can still achieve more in making the drug trade uneconomic for organised crime. In addition to direct impact on supply, enforcement sends a clear message to our youth about the community's view of illicit drugs as dangerous and illegal.
# [AW] In recent decades, the world (including Australia) has used a harsh rhetoric about drugs and drug users, has generously funded drug law enforcement (while providing limited funding for health and social measures) yet the drug market has continued to expand. Drug production has increased. Drug consumption has increased. The number of new kinds of drugs has increased. Drugs are readily available. Drug prices have decreased. The purity of street drugs has increased. There is no evidence that different policies send different messages. If there has been any benefit from an approach heavily reliant on drug law enforcement, the beneficiaries have included criminals, corrupt police, outlaw motor cycle gangs and politicians running on a War on Drugs platform.
Drug harm is not caused by criminal law. Criminal sanctions facilitate treatment of users and protects the wider community from harm. Many states have cautioning programs that divert low-level drug offences from courts and compel individuals to attend counselling. The removal of the threat of criminal sanctions would make it near impossible to compel attendance for such purposes. With more serious or recidivist offenders, if the ability of the justice system to impose custodial sentences is removed there is little ability to force individuals to take responsibility. The impact of drug use then continues. The reality is that courts sentence drug users compassionately when they eventually appear.
# [AW] 50,000 Mexicans have been murdered since the Mexican President declared a War on Drugs in December 2006. How can these murders be considered to have been caused by anything other than Mexico's policy?
Illicit drugs are illegal because of their harmful chemical composition, not harmful because they are illegal. Drug induced or exacerbated mental problems destroy lives and impact our health system. Individuals under the influence of drugs will continue to commit crimes regardless of the source or regulation of the substance.
# [AW] When heroin is distributed through the black market it causes great damage to drug users, their families and the community. Australia had few if any problems resulting from heroin before the drug was prohibited in 1953. Trials of heroin assisted treatment (used prescribed heroin) in 6 countries have shown great benefit for drug users, their families and the community. Illicit drugs are mainly harmful because of their illegality, not their chemical composition.
At a time when the government is increasing the regulation against tobacco and alcohol it is difficult to understand support for a soft approach on illicit drugs. Decriminalisation would inevitably create unintended consequences and a minefield of new policy pitfalls. Complex problems frequently need a pluralistic approach. Pessimism and frustration should not be catalyst for dangerous social experiments such as decriminalisation. Incremental improvement on many fronts such as enforcement, economic growth and treatment will be far more likely to lead to progress.
# [AW] Half the people who use tobacco die from a tobacco related cause. The regulation of tobacco in Australia in the last 25 years has halved the proportion of Australians who smoke. Few if any public health practitioners would like to see tobacco prohibited.