Thursday, May 3, 2012

Should Illicit Drugs be Legalised in Australia?

Post by Australia21 Board Member Dr Alex Wodak AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Alcohol and Drug Service, St. Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, NSW

The War on Drugs, waged for at the last 40 years, has failed comprehensively. Important leaders of the community in Australia and other countries now increasingly acknowledge this. Governments in many countries, including Australia, used a punitive rhetoric and allocated at least 75% of their expenditure in response to drugs to drug law enforcement (such as customs, police, courts and prisons). While identifying the benefits of this approach is difficult the many and major harms are self evident. The scientific debate about drug prohibition is now over.

For decades the global cultivation, production, number of drug users and number of different types of new drugs all soared. While the price of street heroin and cocaine in US and Europe fell by more than 80% in the last 20 years, the purity of street drugs has increased. But drug prohibition is supposed to make street drugs more expensive, less pure and hard to get. In an official annual survey, more than 80% of drug users in Australia said that obtaining drugs like heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’. The number of prisoners serving sentences for drug offences has grown as has the cost of drug prohibition to government, business and the community.  

While the global drug market under prohibition grew spectacularly, so too did deaths, disease, crime and corruption.  The number of heroin overdose deaths in Australia increased 55 times between 1964 and 1997. The difficulties of controlling HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs were exacerbated by the War on Drugs. Adoption of effective harm reduction prevention strategies was delayed and implementation slowed because of the entrenched commitment to a War on Drugs. The more intensively drug law enforcement was implemented, the more violent the drug markets and the more dangerous the street drugs.

The threshold question now is to re-define drugs as primarily a health and social matter. Funding for health and social interventions should be raised to the level enjoyed by drug law enforcement allowing the expansion, quality, attractiveness and effectiveness of drug treatment to be substantially improved. Funding should be allocated by governments to maximise the returns on investments. The human rights of people who use drugs should have the same protection as other members of the community. Change should be slow, cautious, incremental and carefully evaluated.

Cannabis should be taxed and regulated with packets required to show warning signs, provide information for those struggling to cut down or quit and provide consumer information. Hard-to-get but easy-to-lose licences should be required for major cultivation, wholesale and retail. Purchase should require proof of age greater than 18. Cannabis should be provided for medicinal purposes regulated like other medicines.

Needle syringe programmes should be provided in the community and prisons to maximally protect public health. Medically supervised injecting centres should be established where there are large drug markets spilling over into neighbouring streets, parks and supermarkets. Heroin assisted treatment should be provided to the small minority of severely dependent heroin users who have not benefited from multiple and diverse previous treatments. One area where drug law reformers and supporters of the War on Drugs agree is that 1 kg blocks of 100% pure heroin and cocaine should not be sold at supermarket check-out counters. There may be a case, if the results of the above are not considered adequate, for allowing the commercial sale of small quantities of low concentration selected illicit drugs. Australia has done this before. Small quantities of edible opium were taxed, regulated and sold lawfully in Australia until 1906. Coca Cola contained cocaine until 1903.  

The choice is between drugs regulated by the state or regulated by criminals and corrupt police.

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