The following opinion piece on drug reform by Australia21 Director and founding Chairman, Professor Bob Douglas (founding head of the Australian National University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health) was published in today’s Canberra Times (see here):
Is the Portuguese approach the answer Australia is looking for, BOB DOUGLAS asks
Since the launch of the Australia21 report on illicit drugs last week, a healthy debate has begun across Australia about the likely costs and benefits of doing away with prohibition and either legalising or at least decriminalising the use and possession of all drugs. Influential talkback host Alan Jones - in an interview with Michael Wooldridge, the former health minister in the Howard government - made it clear that he has changed his mind since 1997, when he played a key role in supporting John Howard's switch to a ''tough on drugs'' approach. Jones now supports the decriminalisation of all drugs.
Julia Gillard has shown an understandable disinclination to reopen debate on this contentious issue, but her Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has said she is willing to consider proposals for change, while insisting that a policy change will be a high bar to jump. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, whose brother died from a heroin overdose, has been a willing participant in the debate about alternatives to what he sees as a wasteful use of police resources and the needless criminalisation of drug-taking behaviour. If we are to change direction, Carr will be an important player in the growing international debate, which has been influenced for decades, by treaties that have been dominated by US influence and intransigence.
Australia is not alone in needing to find a better way. The presidents of South American countries are meeting in Columbia this week and, led by President Otto Molina of Guatemala, are expected to place strong pressures on the United States to desist from its disastrously failed war on drugs and explore new ways of tackling the ''drug problem''.
So what exactly is the problem? Why do we differentiate heroin from nicotine and cannabis from alcohol? Why do we pass responsibility for the supply and distribution of some recreational drugs to criminal gangs and leave others in the hands of government?
It all dates back over 100 years, when American missionaries in China objected to the unethical way British interests were forcing opium on to the Chinese to balance their trade deficit and indirectly encouraging opium addiction. A series of international treaties evolved to limit the trade in opiates.
In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a ''war on drugs'' to tackle the growing problem of heroin and cocaine addiction in the US. This proved to be an electoral asset for him and law enforcement has been used to maintain fear and demonisation of drug users by politicians ever since. Massive resources were invested in efforts to stamp out the supply of these drugs. Prohibition, a strategy that had failed disastrously in efforts to suppress the supply of alcohol in the 1930's again became US policy and resulted in a thriving prison industry with little impact on the continuing demand for supplies of a range of recreational drugs. The black market flourished and the greater the expenditures on drug law enforcement, greater was the black market value of the illicit drugs. Criminal gangs have flourished on the proceeds and have seriously disrupted the economies of countries bordering the US in their efforts to supply the apparently insatiable demands of US drug users. In turn, the US sends huge numbers of its citizens to jail, very often for drug-related crimes.
Most Australians are understandably concerned that if we roll back our prohibition laws more, rather than less young people will become hooked on addictive drugs. The experience from Portugal, which decriminalised the possession and use of personal supplies of all drugs in 2001 suggests the opposite. The law there does not make criminals of those who possess drugs for personal use but continues to prosecute the black marketeers. But it places substantial resources into dissuasion of use and treatment of users.
Australia21 is planning new discussions among Australian stakeholders about how the Portuguese approach could most usefully be applied here. No-one wants to make the problem worse but it will certainly get worse if we continue to leave it to the drug barons.
Bob Douglas is a Director of Australia21 and co-authored the report of the January Roundtable of eminent Australians entitled Prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen. The report can be downloaded from the website, www.australia21.org.au where donations to promote this work can be lodged.