The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. Stop The Boats. The Recession We Had to Have.
Debate about public policy in Australia seems to be conducted primarily by creating short, punchy headlines that oversimplify complex issues, in order to galvanise public opinion in favour of one political ideology or another.
This tendency towards oversimplification makes discussion about drug policy difficult because it is a topic with a lot of nuance and detail.
Recently when I advocated a move away from drug prohibition it was interpreted by some journalists as me advocating the “legalisation of drugs”.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating the legalisation of illicit drugs.
In order to lay the groundwork for a more sensible and meaningful discussion about drug policy, I want to outline four key terms and my stance on them.
The word prohibition is usually associated with the prohibition of alcohol (the 18th Amendment) in the United States active between 1920 and 1933.
This is widely known as being an absolute disaster. The social experiment totally failed in its aim to prevent the consumption of alcohol. Rather, there was an increase in the production and sale of alcohol (largely thanks to bootlegging) as well as the creation of illegal drinking spaces (speakeasies).
The law became a joke – people were drinking in abundance, thereby undermining authority and simultaneously turning the average person into a “criminal”.
“Prohibition encouraged people to see the law as whimsical and unimportant, instead of something good and protecting” 1
Public trust in law enforcement plummeted due to corruption; bribery and bootlegging were rampant; and gang violence increased dramatically. So perhaps not surprisingly, the 18th Amendment was squashed thirteen years after it was implemented.
The prohibition of illicit drugs is a relatively new phenomenon in this world. The first drug law in Australia was imposed in 1857, in which a tax was placed on opium importing – however, this was a political move to discourage Chinese immigration. The first instances of laws created specifically to fight the “drug war” came about mostly within the past century, wherein “the iron fist of prohibition” was the weapon of choice. 3
The official “War on Drugs” was commenced by US President Richard Nixon in 1972, but it had already begun in earnest in the 1960s due to the rising number of young people using psychoactive drugs. The notion and term were quickly exported around the world from the US to other nations.
The “war” has seen a dramatic increase in spending on drug law enforcement all over the world, as well as an increase in the militarisation of police forces in the US and other developed nations. This has caused catastrophic results for many sections of the community, particularly the socially and economically disadvantaged.
My stance on prohibition: It’s a mistake to try and prohibit any drug from being used. There is enough evidence to prove that it doesn’t help prevent drug dependency. It diverts funds away from treatment, disproportionately affects those most vulnerable in society, and puts money in the hands of criminals that would otherwise go to the government in taxation revenue.
Decriminalisation usually refers to decriminalisation of a substance for personal use. Supply of the drug remains illegal, and there are fines or penalties for possession or public use that do not carry a criminal charge (like getting a parking ticket).
Decriminalisation is part of a harm minimisation strategy that aims to promote safer usage through public outreach programs and increase the likelihood of drug users seeking treatment.
There is one very prominent example of decriminalisation being used to reduce health risks amongst drug users. Thirteen years ago Portugal decriminalised recreational drug use, and in doing so saw a decrease in drug abuse. The overall success of Portugal’s decriminalisation is still up for debate, and varies considerably depending on which camp you listen to. However, European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) analyser Frank Zobel says “this is working” 4
My stance on decriminalisation: I agree that it’s a useful first step, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Supply and production is still illegal, so we continue to waste money attempting to enforce drug laws that are ineffective; whilst possessing a “deemed supply”5 of a substance still puts people at risk of disproportionately harsh sentences.
Legalisation is when something is basically unrestricted. Chocolate, for example, is legal.
Anyone can make and sell chocolate. Apart from the types of regulation that affect all businesses (such as health and safety in production and sale), there is no regulation or licensing involved.
There are very few instances of illicit drug legalisation, but there is one notable case. A heroin legalisation program was made permanent in Switzerland in 2008, where addicts have been able to receive “carefully measured”6 heroin from official centres since the mid 1990s.
Some argue that the program is effective, having abolished the “drug bazaars”7 of the early 90s and giving addicts a safe environment in which to use; others argue it simply feeds the habit rather than helping to find a cure.
My stance on legalisation: I don’t think that there are any drugs that are currently prohibited that should be legalised. Legalisation is dangerous, as it removes the capacity of governments to control the social impact of a given substance. Not only that, but it sends a signal that the substance is safe; legalisation will almost certainly result in increased usage and is very dangerous.
They always say you should save the best ’til last, right?
Regulation is the huge spectrum of policy in between decriminalisation and prohibition where things like alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs sit.
Although substances like tobacco are legal, they’re not legal in the same way that chocolate is legal. Their supply is very heavily controlled and taxed. There is even an increasing number of situations in which the use of cigarettes is controlled (i.e. smoking bans in public places).
So while tobacco, alcohol and even prescription drugs are technically “legal”, in the context of the debate on drug policy I would put them in the “regulation” camp; they are heavily controlled compared to substances like coffee or chocolate but they are produced legally by companies who sell them for a profit.
My stance on regulation: This is the way to go. The most important difference between regulation and all other options here, including decriminalisation, is that it legalises the production and supply of the substance. This means that you get more money going into the formal economy and being taken out of black markets. You increase the quality of the product and reduce risks for users. It would be impossible for illegal production and supply to compete with sanctioned production and supply. Case in point: how many people have you ever heard of who smuggle tobacco into the country illegally? Even with the heavy taxes imposed on smokers by the government, it would still be far too expensive for black market tobacco producers to supply the market because of the risks associated with doing so.
DOING IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME
Regulation is an ongoing process. We’re still getting it right with alcohol and tobacco. We’re still trying to get it right with prescription drugs.
Prohibition, decriminalisation and legalisation are “points on a line”. They’re cut and dried.
Regulation is a huge spectrum of potential policy decisions, but the important thing is that once we get to a point of regulation rather than prohibition, the debate can move away from large scale political point scoring and into a more research based, data driven model of optimisation and refinement.
To be ahead of the curve we need to start researching regulation now.
1. 12 Bad Effects of Prohibition You Should Know by Daniel Florien
2. Free from the Nightmare of Prohibition by Harry Browne
3. Prohibition In America: A Brief History via TheDea.org
4. 'This Is Working': Portugal, 12 Years after Decriminalizing Drugs by Wiebke Hollersen
5. How to determine personal use in drug legislation by Grazia Zuffa
6. Heroin Legalization Program Approved By Swiss Voters by ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS
7. Swiss drug addicts given free heroin By Swiss Voters by Philip Williams