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OPINION: Punitive approach to drugs doesn’t work

GROUNDSWELL: Alex Wodak (third from left) at a Sydney forum in May on the decriminalisation of drugs. IN 1989, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority said: “Over the past two decades in Australia we have devoted increased resources to drug law enforcement, we have increased the penalties for drug trafficking and we have accepted increasing inroads on our civil liberties as part of the battle to curb the drug trade. All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.”
Nanjing Night Net

Those unambiguous words were written 23 years ago by a committee with representatives of all major parties. In 2010 in Britain, The Observer commented: “If the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to anyone who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by murderous criminal gangs, the current arrangements are working well.”

The conclusion of the Australia 21 report launched in April was that drug policy heavily reliant on law enforcement was a miserable failure. That report provoked a vigorous national debate. Few rose to defend the effectiveness of drug law enforcement or contest our claim that it was accompanied by nasty unintended negative consequences.

To develop a second drugs report, we convened 20 experts from diverse backgrounds, examined a discussion paper about the drugs policy in four European countries, and spoke by phone to drug experts from three of these countries. Building on our first report, the second report asks: “If Plan A doesn’t work, what is going to be Australia’s Plan B?”

The Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal have made major changes in their approach to drugs. These changes were not only within the international drug treaties that almost every country in the world has signed, they have been maintained for decades (with only minor adjustments). These countries increased the emphasis on health and social interventions, resulting in a decline in HIV infections and drug overdose deaths.

After Switzerland increased the emphasis on health and social response, deaths, disease and crime fell. In Zurich between 1990 and 2002, the number of new heroin users dropped from 850 to 150, and HIV infections, drug overdose deaths, crime and the quantity of heroin seized declined.

Sweden is one of few countries in Europe that still aims for a drug-free nation. It has harsh punishment for drug users, and only the two needle syringe programs established 25 years ago. Sweden is proud of the low levels of reported drug use among its young people but has the eighth highest drug induced death rate in the European Union, and the rate is increasing. Sweden now seems to be moving away slowly from its hardline position. Its approach to drugs is starting to look more like the rest of the EU.

But Sweden also has some positive lessons for Australia. Like the other three European countries, Sweden is committed to having an effective drug treatment system and is serious about trying to help the most disadvantaged.

We argue that redefining drugs as a health and social problem is the first step if we want to see better results from Australia’s approach to drugs. We want to see a reduction in heroin overdose deaths from the current 400 a year. We want fewer murders among drug traffickers (there were almost 40 murders of amphetamine traffickers in Melbourne in the past 10 years). We want to see fewer hepatitis C infections and less physical and mental illness in people who use drugs. We want to see people who use drugs helped to live a normal and useful life. We want to see a reduction in drug-related and prohibition-related crime, and less police corruption.

Modest changes are more likely to be achievable politically. But the situation demands more ambitious change. Ultimately, we will have to accept that as long as criminals and corrupt police are the major suppliers of drugs in Australia, we will struggle to reduce deaths, disease, crime and corruption.

We will have to replace the current unregulated supply with some form of regulated supply. This is not about the world some of us want to live in, but the world as it really is: a world where people use drugs and if these are not available from a regulated source, they will obtain them from criminals.

We reject the assumption that harsher policies reduce drug consumption and that less punitive approaches increase drug consumption. The evidence does not support that.

Dr Alex Wodak is the director of Australia 21 and president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.