Australia21’s report of its 31 January roundtable on drug law reform, entitled The Prohibition of Illicit Drugs is Killing and Criminalising our Children, and We Are Letting it Happen, was launched in Parliament House, Canberra today.
In launching the report, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC said:
Paul Barratt of Australia21 has spoken of that organisation and of the background to this event.
This report and the events leading to it have been spurred by re-evaluations made here and internationally of our public approach to what are described as illicit drugs.
It is now generally accepted that the so-called “war on drugs”, after more than 40 years, has comprehensively failed. It is now widely accepted that an approach of that kind is, in fact, doomed to fail. Prohibition creates more harms on top of those that drugs can cause – harms in health and social areas, by way of increased criminal activity and corruption in law enforcement.
If we are genuinely concerned to deal more effectively with drugs and to minimise the harms that are caused, we need to move away from the prohibition model. But to where? It was for that reason – to explore that question – that Australia21 convened the high level roundtable discussion in January which led to this report.
I took part in the discussion as a former prosecutor. In my involvement in criminal legal practice for over 40 years I have seen firsthand, as I have both prosecuted and defended in drug cases of all kinds, the impotence of the criminal law in dealing with what is primarily a health and social issue. More than impotence, in fact – the counterproductiveness of the criminal law in such a central role.
The argument for change, as I see it, is partly based on rational economics. Prohibition means that the market in drugs must be black. Suppliers therefore take on extra risk and charge for it. If they survive the risk, their profits are high. That provides funds for the corruption of law enforcement. It generates turf wars. Consumers must pay grossly inflated prices for their product. Secondary crime is committed to steal the price. Product quality and quantity are unregulated and the circumstances of consumption are underground. Sickness and death can and do follow. In prisons drug users continue to use and are back in the market when released. Still there is demand. And while there is demand, there will be supply.
How can we cope with the demand (and preferably reduce it), reduce harm to consumers and eliminate the harms of crime and corruption? By legalising all drugs, regulating, controlling and taxing them. There will still be a peripheral role for the criminal law, I expect, dealing with bootleggers.
However, we cannot get to that point overnight and there may well be some trial and error along the way. This report urges all of us to destigmatise the whole discussion of drug law policy – to bring it out in the open and to search for better ways than we presently have to address these issues. It is not a blueprint (although such do exist); it is not a set of detailed policy recommendations. Rather it identifies the problem and urges us all to consider – openly – the benefits and costs of moving away from prohibition. Maybe by degrees (such as decriminalisation in Portugal over a decade ago) – maybe by differential treatment of particular drugs; maybe by differential timing in our steps forward. But we must have the conversation and the politicians must become involved. We cannot afford to do otherwise, financially or morally.
Download a copy of the report here.