Should illicit drugs be legalised in Australia?
BY TIMVANGELDER | 90 VOTES | 55 COMMENTS | 15 MAY ’12
Read below to get a balanced view. Or if you’re ready, vote now
Introduction by Jed Blore and Tim van Gelder
For a long time now we’ve been “at war” on drugs. The central strategy in this war has been making drugs illegal.
Below, Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation claims the war has been lost and its time for a better approach.
Jo Baxter from Drug Free Australia thinks differently.
But first, a little context.
In April, Australia21, an independent think tank, released a report into Australia’s drug policies, with a title that gave nothing away: “Prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen”. The report concluded that “the current prohibition of illegal drugs is creating more harms than benefits and needs to be reconsidered by the Australian community”.
Within 24 hours, Julia Gillard came out firmly in opposition to decriminalisation, whilst the Greens welcomed the report’s conclusions and called for an open and frank debate. The Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott, was somewhat silent; however the Premier of Victoria stated his position firmly against decriminalisation as did the Northern Territory Chief Minister.
So what’s the current state of drug policies? Here’s something that may surprise you. Professor and Specialist in Drug Policy, Alison Ritter notes that South Australia decriminalised minor cannabis offences way back in 1987. There, you get a fine rather than a criminal record. This has also been the case in the ACT since 1993 and the Northern Territory, since 1996. Western Australia used to have this policy, until it was overturned in 2008.
A quick note on terminology. Decriminalisation refers to a reduction of legal penalties, like SA, ACT, and NT, and often only for use and possession, rather than the sale of illicit drugs.
Legalisation goes further; it says that legal prohibitions should generally be removed.
Now our protagonists present their arguments. Over to them, and to you.
They should be legalised because…
They should NOT be legalised because…
Alex Wodak, President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation
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.
Jo Baxter, Executive Officer, Drug Free Australia
The legalization of current illicit drugs, is not a viable solution to the global drug problem and would actually exacerbate the problem.
The UN Drug Conventions were adopted because of the recognition by the international community that drugs are an enormous social and health problem and that the trade adversely affects the global economy.
UN Controls are working and one can only imagine how much worse the problem would have become without it. They have helped keep use rates low, with only 6.1 % of people globally (between the ages of 15 and 64) using illicit drugs.
Decriminalization, (which equates to the legalization of these drugs), is not an acceptable solution to the world’s drug problem for the following reasons:
‘Legalisation’ sends the dangerous tacit message of approval, that drug use is acceptable and cannot be very harmful. Permissibility, availability and accessibility of dangerous drugs will result in increased consumption by many who otherwise would not consider using them. Enforcement of laws creates risks that discourage drug use and give clear boundaries.
With increased use there would be increased dependencies, with levels of addiction likely to match the levels of the legal drugs, tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs. This would lead to increasing related morbidity and mortality, the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and the other Blood Bourne Viruses, exacerbated by the sharing of needles and drugs paraphernalia. There would be an enormous increased burden on the health and social services.
The fact that alcohol and tobacco cause harm but are still legal is not a justification for legalising other dangerous substances. The pharmacology and pharmacokinetics of psychotropic substances suggest that more, not less, control of their access is warranted. The most recent research has confirmed just how harmful cannabis can be, making consideration of its legalization, irresponsible.
It is inaccurate to suggest that the personal use of drugs has no consequential and damaging effects on others. Apart from the harm to the individual users, drugs affect others, by addiction, violence, criminal behaviour and road accidents. Research increasingly demonstrates that the harms associated with the toxicity of drugs is not a matter for debate or a vote. People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Those who advocate freedom of choice cannot create freedom from adverse consequences.
There would be no reduction in criminal justice costsas, contrary to the view held by those who support legalisation, crime would not be eliminated or reduced. Legalization would not take the profit out of the drug trade as criminals will always find ways of countering the law. This would include cutting drugs with harmful substances to maximise sales and profits; using aggressive marketing techniques designed to promote increased sales and use. Legal drugs – alcohol and tobacco, are regularly traded on the black market and are an international smuggling problem; an estimated 600 billion cigarettes are smuggled annually (World Drug report 2009).
Taxation benefits are flawed. Statements about taxation offsetting any additional costs are false. Taxation monies raised from alcohol and tobacco go nowhere near addressing consequential health and welfare costs. The reality is that taxes drive prices up. Short of governments distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain them would continue to do so if they became legal. The administrative burden associated with legalisation would become enormous and probably unaffordable to most governments.
There is a specific obligation to protect children from the harms of drugs, as is evidenced through the ratification by the majority of United Nations Member States of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 33 states that Member States “shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances …and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances”. There are clear links between drug use and child abuse issues.
So now that you have read the arguments, are you voting yes, or no? Have something to say? Leave a comment below.
Further Reading & Viewing:
First “Versus” Debate, on the War on Drugs. Participants include former Presidents, leading experts in the field, former head of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Julian Assange, Richard Branson, and others. Presented by Google Plus and Intelligence Squared. YouTube linkhere.
Herald Sun Editorial, supporting War on Drugs
Column by author of Australia21 report, Bob Douglas
Column by Geoff Gallop, former Premier of Western Australia
The Conversation series on the War on Drugs, and summaries of some of The Conversation articles on Crikey Health Blog
US and Central and Latin American perspective on the Drug War in Foreign Policy magazine
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey Report, presenting the latest statistics on illicit drug use in Australia
With Reservations – bkeniry (22.8)
I am fully in favour of decriminilisation for use and possession (so long as there is no clear intent to deal). Criminal prosecution for drug use is in many cases tantamount to crimal prosecution for having a health condition. I am however much more hesitant concerning full legalisation. I think there is a lot to be said for the argument that legalisation would certainly lead to a significant increase
The costs of criminalisation are greater – chris barnett S (15.0)
Let me propose an overarching goal of public policy that I hope most people can agree on: to maximise the quality of life of as many people as possible. My current stance on this issue rests on the belief that the costs of criminalisation outweigh the costs of legalisation with regard to this broad goal.
Relative costs of legalisation:
->Illicit drugs will be used more by more people.
.. ->Many illicit
At least decriminalise – michael pulsford (14.7)
The answer to this question might vary by substance; ‘illicit drugs’ is a very broad term. It covers substances like marijuana, coca, opium and psylocibin which have long histories of human use and which humans seem to be capable of regulating (at least under the right circumstances) via custom; it also includes newer things like the synthetic opiates and amphetamines which we have as a species much less
War on drugs defies logic – jamesl (8.6)
Just look at the statistics for deaths caused by legal drugs (tobacco and alcohol) and compare them to deaths from illegal drugs, both soft and hard. The statistics do not lie so it is time for some logic to be used in this debate. Or make tobacco and alcohol illegal too.
Take drug use out of the Shadow – stephencottee (8.1)
Criminalisation of drugs has so obviously, patently and horrendously not worked that you’d have to be on drugs to still think they should be illegal!
Whenever something is secret, hidden and forced underground (eg. prostitution) there is crime, pathology, immense suffering and prejudice.
The only way drugs can find their proper place in society – whatever that may be – is if they are no longer demonised
At least it would be safer drug use – leigh (5.2)
My opinion is that if drugs are taken out of the black market, less “junk” will be cut into them. The vast majority of overdoses and health issues with taking many of these drugs is not from the drugs themselves, but the rat poison and muck that is mixed with them.
Not yet persuaded – tocqueville S (14.2)
Alex Wodak concludes his case by declaring that the choice is between drugs regulated by the state and drugs regulated by criminals and corrupt police. But this, it seems to me, points to a fundamental problem for his argument. For whom do corrupt police work, in principle, if not the state? And what gives us any assurance that legalization will lead to a workable policy under ‘the state’, rather than
Root Cause! – beetle S (10.7)
No is the answer to the current question but I believe it is the wrong question as it is looking to address a symptom of society as oppposed to the root cause of the problem. The real question here is ‘Why do people need to take illicit drugs?’ What is it that is lacking in society that causes people to seek an ‘escape’ from every day stressors. Whether it be over-eating, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana,
Pro decriminalisation but not blanket legalisation – saiman (7.8)
This is a tough one for me, as I’m generally anti anything that involves the government telling people what to do. I am 100% in favour of decriminalisation of drug use, as I don’t believe that people should be punished for what should be their personal choices. The thing that bothers me about full legalisation is that once you make drugs sales a corporate endeavour, they (drug companies) will then
Don’t legalize illicit drugs. – snapperah (5.2)
I would prefer my two teenage children to live their lives under the present system.
Legalise individual not societal drug use – jmw99 (4.4)
If a legal market for hard drugs is established, the prospects of corporate profit will drive consumption. I prefer we invest resources in rehabilitation and prevention programs rather than the regulatory infrastructure that will be needed to oversee drug legalisation.
Too big a question – kendavis (3.7)
There is so much to this question. Firstly, I think cannabis should be available for medical use, particularly in chronic pain and possibly as a last resort in anxiety disorders (it seems to genuinely help some but make things worse for many). Harder drugs – no way – it sends the wrong message and makes harmful experimentation much more likely – there is a reason they are addictive. Yet I agree the “war