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Australia’s love affair with drugs

Australians have always loved their drugs – more so than any other nation in which those same drugs are proscribed and used under threat of native, criminal penalties. Drug taking is a national trait…

Drugs smuggled into a South Australian prison. If jails can’t be kept drug free, what hope is there for wider society? AAP/Thuy On

Australians have always loved their drugs – more so than any other nation in which those same drugs are proscribed and used under threat of native, criminal penalties.

Drug taking is a national trait. We began as a nation of drug takers – drinking, inhaling, swallowing and even injecting easily accessible legal narcotics.

By the early years of Federation, fears about the exposure of pale European sensitivities to the intolerably harsh antipodean climes saw medicinal proprietors (or “quacks” in today’s medical terminology) foist some 600 different medicinal products in Australia, many containing significant amounts of narcotics.

These were launched on the back of deceitful advertising campaigns that promised miracle cures for every conceivable ailment. One popular product - Original Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne – contained six grains of morphine as well as cannabis. Such preparations doubtless ensured consumers protection, not just from a searching climate, but from whatever ails you.

Many such “medicinal” preparations contained heroin until as recently as 1953. Indeed, it was only in July 1953, just over a half-century past, that this supposedly most pernicious and evil drug was prohibited in Australia. Not one overdose was recorded in that year, nor in the 10 previous years.

The irony of criminal laws passed to confront a non-existent problem should not be lost on any reader, given the problems created by these laws today. Prohibition came despite fierce opposition from professional medical bodies whose use of heroin in legitimate and legal medical uses had expanded since the 1930s – a time at which Australia was consuming 7.5% of the world’s heroin supply, three times as much as the British per capita and 50 times that of the US.

It was only the dominance of the latter at the United Nations and embarrassing questions of Australians’ embrace of heroin that saw politicians enforce the prohibition of the production, sale and use of the drug. International subservience and playing the good international citizen was prioritised over the right to make policy in the national interest.

By the end of the war of Vietnam after many thousands of US troops and the travelling heroin market they represented returned from Southeast Asia to their homelands, local producers and suppliers who had found the production and sale of opiates to westerners a lucrative business sought out new markets.

To the not too distant south lay a nation with a long, almost indefensible border and was home to an emerging (and affluent) youth culture which had embraced drug use as part of a symbolic opposition to an establishment of questionable morality and authority.

US soldiers on R&R during the Vietnam conflict had introduced locals to heroin smuggled back from Indochina. Two decades of enforced abstinence had rendered a young population without cultural resistance to opiates and a love affair blossomed.

Until the practice exploded in unprecedented use in the late 1990s as the futility of prohibitive laws were demonstrated in light of the fact that any young Australian (who looked the part) would be offered the cheapest and purest heroin that had reached our shores.

At $25 for a relatively pure hit, this was, for many, an offer too good to refuse.

In 2001, in Victoria alone nearly 400 individuals died from heroin overdose. When a government stands back and hands responsibility of quality and pricing controls to a criminal black market motivated purely by profit it abrogates all responsibility to provide the means to protect the people it purports to govern in the name of.

Given Australia’s love affair with drugs, we should be asking how best to manage it – because it will not disappear – it will simply remain an aspect of our national character (and broader humanity).

Drugs don’t kill any more people than a household cleaner kills. If both can be accessed without due warnings and understanding of content, then they can become killers.

There have been claims for success of prohibitive policies. When Australian rates of heroin use declined amidst a range of factors – including diversion of limited supplies in Southeast Asia to more lucrative Europeans markets whose usual suppliers had been on a somewhat enforced drive of eradication under the (brief) direction of the Taliban in the hellish sands of Afghanistan – drug warriors claimed success for such “Tough on Drugs” policies.

A walk in the community would have exposed the hollowness of such success as methamphetamine use and polydrug use (increasingly including diverted legally produced opioid pharmaceuticals) saw Australia’s rates of stimulants and so-called party drugs rise to undocumented levels.

As a comprehensive report by the 2004 Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee Inquiry into amphetamine and party drug use in Victoria reported, both ecstasy use and amphetamine use is most prevalent in Australia compared to Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Committee went on to quote the United Nations Office of Drug Control:

“…the Amphetamine Type Stimulant phenomenon in Australia is serious and growing. Australia has the highest levels of ecstasy abuse worldwide.”

Australians love drugs. We will never be a drug free community. Will a government ever display the leadership and courage ex-politicians show on questions of how to best address this love affair? Will they take back control of these drugs from the underground interests who will take any means to profit by meeting demand?

Or, are there too many vested interests in keeping drugs illegal, like the industrial law enforcement complex that thrives on drug war funding and the faith-based zealots whose funding remains dependent on continued demonisation of drugs and those who use them?

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Ian Musgrave

    Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide

    "Drugs don’t kill any more people than a household cleaner kills." Do you have a reference for this. While most people substantially overestimate the numbers of deaths from recreational drugs, the last figures I saw put them substantially higher than accidental poisonongs

    1. James Rowe

      Lecturer at RMIT University

      In reply to Ian Musgrave

      Apologies for the over-reaction Ian - a testy subject for me (and for countless others of course). Too much personal involvement sometimes swamps the professional ... I must admit I have no option of the distance of the latter.

  2. Danny Hoardern

    Analyst Programmer

    I don't think it is a good idea to legalise all drugs in on go. Perhaps eventually yes, but baby steps are important to stand any chance of change.

    First we start with the least harmful drug cannabis and centre public debate topics around but not limited to:
    - Only a drug dealer or a corrupt cop would logically conclude that it is better to keep the annual $2-6 billion[1] market in the black market rather than government taxes.
    - The percentage of individuals who develop problems directly attributable…

    Read more
  3. Monica Barratt

    NHMRC Post-Doc Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Australia

    Thanks James. If only our politicians could put this issue into context and engage with the debate, rather than just defending the status quo with cries of "drugs kill".

  4. Malcolm Kyle

    logged in via Facebook

    Prohibition engendered black market profits are obscenely huge. Remove this and you remove the ability to bribe or threaten any government official or even whole governments. The argument that legalized regulation won’t severely cripple organized crime is truly bizarre. Of course, the bad guys won’t just disappear, but if you severely diminish their income, you also severely diminish their power. The proceeds from theft, extortion, pirated goods etc. are a drop in the ocean compared to what can be earned by selling prohibited/unregulated drugs in a black market estimated to be worth 400,000 million dollars. The immense illegal capital, gifted through prohibition, is what gives these criminal cartels and terrorists power. Power that has allowed them to expand into other areas with near total impunity.

  5. James Rowe

    Lecturer at RMIT University

    My apologies Ian. The sentence could perhaps have been worded:

    'If regulated, prohibited drugs would be no more likely to kill than household products were the latter not subject to the restrictions imposed by regulators and common sense alike. The factor that determines the level of fatalities is the manner in which the substances in question are handled.'

    To be honest, the point of the manner in which we handle substances should have been obvious - if there was no child-prof caps or if…

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    1. Ian Musgrave

      Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide

      In reply to James Rowe

      That would be better, but still misleading (comparing a putative result with an unknown result). But invalid comparisons are invalid comparisons, and we want to avoid the same misinformation the current anti-drug scare campaigns are promoting.

      In 2008 there were 622 deaths by accidental poisoning of all types (0.4% of all deaths)
      and 337 deaths due to opioid overdose

      Read more
  6. john mills


    To me its obvious, either score off the criminal or score off the doctor.

  7. All Car Wiki

    logged in via Twitter

    At this point of sick of talking about how much sense it makes to decriminalise drugs and to legalise soft drugs like Cannabis and MDMA, it gets tiring trying to inform ignorant people about peer reviewed journals, studies, just basic facts about certain currently illicit drugs. I just want to say at this stage, I'm behind decriminalisation, and long term legalisation. We know there are no significant harms with typical use of Cannabis and MDMA, only the ignorant and the crusaders could say otherwise in the face of overwhelming evidence. The fact is, that Cannibis use has a lower incidence rate of mental illness than alcohol does. And MDMA essentially has no ill effects whatsoever. Used responsibly, these drugs are safe, enjoyable, and sensible.