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Legalisation and drug reform proponents have recognised the failure of the current prohibition of drugs and the numerous problems which have been caused by this poorly thought out strategy. The goals of prohibition of decreasing both supply and demand of illicit drugs have, as I will illustrate, been proven to be a complete failure. To start off, I will quote a statement made in the Australian parliamentary committee report on the Australian crime commission that ”Prohibition, while theoretically a logical and properly-intentioned strategy, is not effective, as it has the effect of driving [drug] use underground. Consequently, druginduced illness is frequently going untreated because people who use illicit substances are reluctant to seek medical help for fear of the possible consequences of criminal conviction.” (http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/acc_ctte/index.htm) While I believe prohibition is illogical, the fact that even a Parliamentary committee admits that prohibition is ineffective illustrates that this strategy has many serious issues. The main argument used by prohibitionists to justify the incredible amount of damage this policy has done to drug users and society, is that it deters people from using drugs. However, is this the case? America has the harshest drug prohibition laws in the entire world and spends the most money on drug prohibition per capita. However, America has one of the largest problems with illicit drug use. If you compare the lifetime prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands, which is at 17%1, in comparison to America which is at 36.9%2 and Australia at 33.1%3, in 2001.
(1: "Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point, The Netherlands Drug Situation 2002", access date: 26/10/07, 2: National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Volume I. Summary of National Findings, access date: 26/10/07, 3: 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: detailed findings, access date: 26/10/07)
This illustrates that drug use is based on culture, rather than enforcement and spending on drug prohibition. Observation of the drug market shows that drugs go through phases much like fashion. Statistics do not show a reliable trend following the prohibition and enforcement of laws; rather, they follow cultural trends.
Here we can see that while in recent years there has been a decrease in drug use, it is still higher than usage rates in 1993 and the same as 1991 where drug law enforcement spending and penalties were lower than currently. Drug use follows trends, peaking in certain years, and then declining. The common factor in all statistics during these years’ peaks and drops is prohibition, which seems to show little correlation to usage levels. We see it occur throughout the world in past decades. For example, we can see statistics of onset of Marijuana use in America (statistics were not available for Australia dating back this far) follows these trends. The following graph of marijuana initiation per year in the united states illustrates this:
Here we see a sharp increase of marijuana use in the 60’s and 70’s in America, followed by a trailing off throughout the 1980’s, then rising back up to the levels of the 1960’s. Simple logic dictates that the types of people willing to put their health at risk and ignore the social taboos would not be discouraged from drug use due to its illegal status. A statement by the Australian institute of Criminology itself admits “traditional incarceration methods have [not] deterred illicit drug use” (nor
originally at start of quote, thus removed and not added). (http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/ti95.pdf)
However, numerous psychological studies have shown that the “forbidden fruit” effect applies to drug use. As evidenced during the alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s in America, alcohol consumption rates actually increased under prohibition, with the attraction being the rebellion attached to drinking alcohol. A report by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW, concluded that attempts at using illegality of drugs as a “scare factor” was quote: “Ineffective or
counterproductive: Can increase attractiveness of drugs, as something risky, for some.” (Structural determinates of youth drug use, ANCD research center: http://www.ancd.org.au/publications/pdf/rp2_youth_drug_use.pdf)
The secondary goal of prohibition is to decrease availability of illicit drugs; however, this has been proven to be redundant. According to a study by Don Weatherburn and Bronwyn Lind, funded by the NSW health department “there is no detectable relationship between the price, purity or perceived availability of heroin at street-level in Cabramatta and average amount of heroin seized” (http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/bocsar/ll_bocsar.nsf/vwFiles/r38.pdf/$file/r38.pdf) Police Commissioner, Mr Mick Palmer, admitted that [ show quote] “The seizure of 400kg of heroin with a
street value of $400 million led to the arrests of 18 people and was among the largest heroin hauls in the world. But despite the size of the seizure, heroin prices had not risen and there did not appear to be shortage of the drug in Australia, he said." (Herald Sun (Melbourne), Wed, 25 Nov 1998, p. 22).
As a parliamentary committee study on drug policy found “Drug law enforcement measures, such as customs, police, courts and prisons, have proven to be relatively ineffective, expensive and often seriously counterproductive.” (http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/fhs/illicitdrugs/report.htm,). It is clear that the police have utterly failed in their goal to both affect the availability of drugs to the public and decrease the appeal (even shown to cause the opposite) of drugs within Australia by any significant amount. So, we can see the prohibition has failed in its goal of decreasing both the demand and supply of drugs. However, not only has drug prohibition completely failed in its attempt to decrease drug usage, but it is actually further exasperating the harm that drug use causes to the individual and to society. A study by Maher & Dixon found that “while the crackdowns and intensive policing resulted in an increasing number of arrests, there were a number of unintended, negative consequences. These included a growth in unsafe injecting practices, unsafe storage of heroin (e.g., storing drugs in their mouth and swallowing the drugs if police approached, despite the risk of overdose), a decrease in the incentive of users to seek treatment, as well as unsafe disposal of Drug dealing and use was displaced to other areas and to more” (Maher & Dixon,2001 http://www.turningpoint.org.au/research/dpmp_monographs/dpmp_monograph05.pdf) Drug use has become far more dangerous due to prohibition. The quality of drugs, due to the unregulated nature of the drug industry, is highly variable, often quite poor quality is sold due to its cheapness to produce, with numerous deaths each year resulting from poisoning and overdose, deaths we could prevent if we controlled and regulated this industry. In the news, we keep hearing that they are mixing drugs with other drugs and chemicals so that they can cut costs, or are using uneven concentrations in their drugs. This puts the user at an enormous risk of overdose or poisoning, as they can never have a stable supply nor tell what is contained in the drugs they are using, meaning they can’t tell how much is suitable for adequate effect, which for many users, particularly less experienced younger users, can lead to excessive (even fatal) amounts of use. We saw this happen during the Alcohol prohibition of the 1920’s in America, where moonshine, a highly dangerous form of alcohol, became very popular due to the ease at which it could be produced. Deaths from poisoned liquor rose from 1,064 in 1920, before the prohibition was initiated, to 4,154 in 1925, at the peak of prohibition enforcement. [Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=1017&full=1] Through drug prohibition, we have seen the rates of blood spread diseases, particularly HIV and Hepatitis C rise dramatically, due to needle sharing, a practice fostered by lack of regulation in the drug industry. If legalised we could provide proper apparatus for drug usage, so that drug users don’t catch these life debilitating diseases and possibly spread them out into general society. Unfortunately, under recent laws, even possession of drug paraphernalia has become illegal, which is further exasperating this enormous issue.
Prohibition has also created a large criminal industry. Since the only people supplying in this enormous black market are usually the gangs, who receive a large majority of the profits of drug sales, which helps to fund and perpetuate the gang wars we see going on throughout Australia, particularly within Melbourne. Why do we allow drugs, one of the most dangerous substances available, to be controlled and sold by criminals? How could that possibly be making the situation better? In June 2001 Mr Keelty, the AFP Commissioner, said there had been: [show quote] "a business decision by Asian organised crime gangs to switch from heroin production as their major source of income to the making of methamphetamine, or speed, tablets." (drugpolicy.org/docUploads/heroin_trial_ten_years_2007_2_1.pdf) In recent years, we have seen a large increase in the use of both ecstasy and methamphetamines, particularly Ice, as we are gripped in what is called the “Ice epidemic”, while heroin use has decreased. This level of control over such a big problem and risk within Australian society should not be wielded by these violent, sinister gangs. As a parliamentary commission on drug use stated, we must “Recognise that illicit drug use, like legal drug use, is primarily a health and social issue“, not a criminal one (The House of Representatives Standing
Committee on Family and Human Services Inquiry into the impact of illicit use on families: http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/fhs/illicitdrugs/report/fullreport.pdf (warning, 2.1mb pdf)).
This is not a war we can win; it is a problem we can manage. Until this is recognised, society and the user will continue to suffer. The drug pushers will always find a way to get drugs into our society, as there is an enormous demand for drugs and the profits are so large. What we need to do is fight that demand, however the illegality of these drugs doesn’t have any effect, if anything increases the demand, yet the illegality detrimentally affects the user of the drugs, through poor quality drugs, dangerous conditions and expensive prices. It is the failure of prohibition, the numerous and dramatic problems and the simple impracticalities, that leads me to support legalisation, which can solve so many of these major issues. If we legalise drugs, we can take this dangerous asset out of the hands of criminals and offer a heavily regulated and safer option. We can control the sale, by giving proper health warnings on the drug the individual is purchasing when dispensed at a licensed and certified clinic, so they can make an informed decision, one which is almost impossible to ensure under the current system. We can teach people responsible use, provide them with suitable apparatus (such as clean needles) and educate them on what to do in a dangerous situation. Through legalisation, we can recognise abusers (possibly through a library card type system) who have an addiction and provide them with proper medical advice and offer proper rehabilitation schemes. Legalisation, while it will neither increase nor decrease usage beyond simple deviations which all surveys on drug use are susceptible to, will make certain drugs less appealing in comparison to other, relatively safer drugs. Ice, in recent years has grown in popularity, while Heroin usage has decreased in the Australian market. Researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center has concluded that the increased popularity of Ice has been due to a combination of pressures from the main drug dealers pushing towards this cheaper, easier to produce drug and the current Heroin drought. Each year, however, we spend approximately, according to the Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1 billion dollars on prohibition (which only includes law enforcement, gaols and the justice system). That is approximately 2.8 million dollars each day (http://www.aph.gov.au/library/intguide/SP/illicitdrugs.htm). That’s enough to fund 2800 hospital beds for a whole day, the salaries of 33 senior nurses or 8 emergency department physicians for an entire year, all this, just in one day. Within just one week, the amount spent on prohibition would already be enough to fund a new Emergency department in Rockhampton hospital.
When the cannabis industry in Australia, according to the Australian Journal of Management, is worth approximately 2 billion dollars each year and the profit margins of illicit drugs on average hitting levels of 1700%, it is ridiculous that we continue pumping money into fighting this industry (when this is clearly not working) while violent gangs (predominantly) are making such incredible profits. If we abandon this failed war and begin taxing drugs, the amount of money saved will be enormous, which can do so much more good for Australian society than it was beforehand. We can put this money back into drug rehabilitation schemes and public education and “shaming” campaigns as done with cigarettes, which has been shown to be incredibly successful in the past decade in decreasing the amount of smokers. Legalisation has been, despite Australia’s apparent phobia, given serious thought in other countries around the world, particularly Switzerland, which enacted what was entitled the Heroin Trials, in conjunction with widespread focus upon harm minimisation schemes as opposed to prohibition law enforcement. The Swiss heroin trials is an experiment whereby hardcore Heroin addicts were administered a suitable dosage of clean, pure heroin each day, at a cost of approximately 10 to 20 francs. They were administered this dose at a dedicated clinic, provided with clean needles and monitored for a short amount of time before released, for medical observation purposes. The Swiss heroin trials have been incredibly successful, resulting in an expansion and continuation of the program, with the trials resulting in: [show slide] (a)A decrease in heroin use; (b)Improvement of the user’s quality of life; (c)forty per cent of the participants have found employment; (d)All of the previously homeless users (approximately 1 third at the start) are no longer homeless. (e) There have been no overdose deaths of those on the program Source: Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and PubMed Central The harm reduction approach in Switzerland in comparison to the prevention approach used by the Australian government, has yielded numerous successes for Swiss society; this illustrates the effect of this strategy upon the mortality rates of heroin overdoses within Switzerland:
It has been found that the incidence of heroin use dropped from 850 new users in 1990 to 150 in 2002. Dr Nordt of the Psychiatric University Hospital, Zurich, states: "As the Swiss population supported this drug policy, this medicalisation of opiate dependence changed the image of heroin use as a rebellious act to an illness that needs therapy. Finally, heroin seems to have become a 'loser drug', with its attractiveness fading for young people." (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/44417.php) This is a brilliant step towards the strategy of harm minimisation through strict drug legalisation, illustrating that it is a legitimate option to control this problem. In summary, we have seen the failure of prohibition at both decreasing demand and supply of drugs in Australian society and numerous problems arising from this strategy. A new approach must be found and this lays within the harm minimisation strategies of legalisation with heavy regulation.
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