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Our drugs policies have failed. It’s time to reinvent them based on what actually works

How should we deal with this? Shutterstock

Our drugs policies have failed. It’s time to reinvent them based on what actually works

There is only one way to make better decisions about illicit drugs and so save lives and money: we need to change the way drugs policies are made.

The alternative is to remain stuck in the same futile cycle. Every time a young person dies tragically and needlessly at a music festival or dance party, our commentators clamour for our politicians to respond immediately.

We make drugs policies on the run. But policy quick-fixes are mostly ineffective and we find ourselves no better prepared to avert future tragedies or drug-related harm.

We can do much better. We have decades of research that tells us what works and why, and we are continuously building that evidence base. Smarter drugs policy-making would use that evidence, in conjunction with other policy drivers such as public opinion and personal experience.

The author speaking at the UNSW UNSOMNIA event.

Eight million Australians, or 42% of the population, use an illicit drug in their lifetime. Most don’t run into trouble. But, we also know that only half the number of Australians who need and want treatment get it, and that global deaths from illicit drug use have risen by 32% in the past 10 years. Worldwide, some 46.4 million people suffer a drug use disorder in any one year.

Our governments spend a great deal of money responding to illicit drugs use. That includes prevention programs, healthcare, treatment programs and harm-reduction services; the humane face of drugs policies.

But in Australia, as in other Western nations like the United States, Britain, Germany and Sweden, the lion’s share of funding – more than 60% – is spent on law enforcement. While law enforcement appropriately focuses on disrupting supply chains, protecting borders and controlling access to precursor chemicals, much effort is also spent on arresting people who use drugs.

There are alarming examples globally of concentrated efforts against people who use drugs. In the Philippines, an appalling government program of extrajudicial killings spearheads a new “tough on drugs” approach, and in parts of Southeast Asia people who use drugs are confined to forced labour camps.

The outcome is neither safer communities nor a reduction in drug-related deaths or harm.

Yet, there are several policies with an established strong evidence base that could be implemented. First, get treatment to those who want and need it; some 200,000 Australians are currently falling through the cracks.

We can also improve treatment options. For example, randomised controlled trials have shown that heroin-assisted treatment works for the small number of people who don’t respond to other current programs.

We also know that needle and syringe programs reduce the risk of HIV and other blood-borne viruses, and 90 countries have put them in place. Yet only eight countries have them in prisons. Australia isn’t one of them.

We should also decriminalise the personal use of drugs. In Australia, there are about 100,000 arrests every year for drug use – not for drug supply, but for drug use. This represents an enormous cost, both economically and socially. International evidence shows that the decriminalisation of personal drug use reduces the cost to society and to individuals, and does not significantly increase drug use.

We can also stop doing things that simply don’t work, no matter how sensible they might seem. For example, it’s now a decade since the NSW Ombudsman reported that sniffer dogs had “proven to be an ineffective tool”. The original intention was to focus (appropriately) on drug supply, but sniffer dogs are now extensively used in entertainment precincts and at music festivals to detect drug use.

These examples make clear that current drug policy is rarely driven by evidence. Instead, it is driven by perceptions of what the public wants, fuelled by shock jocks and other outspoken media voices. All too often, this reflects responses to single events and tragedies, not patterns and outcomes established over years or decades of methodical research.

Drug policy researchers must get on the front foot and engage the media, the public, business leaders, policy makers and Australians who use drugs. We need a genuine contest of ideas, informed by evidence, to provide an alternative to knee-jerk policy on the run.

Consider the fierce debate over Sydney’s controversial lockout laws, which restrict the late-night availability of alcohol in the inner city. This too was policy on the run, made by the NSW government in response to several tragic “one punch” deaths.

However, a great deal of debate has happened since to illuminate many aspects of the issue, including the perceptions of the LGBTI community, local residents and the people affected by the policies.

These multiple types of knowledge and evidence need to be integrated and debated. Imagine if this kind of informed debate, bringing in all kinds of stakeholders, could inform policy making, including drugs policies, before – and not after – decisions are made.

Drugs policies are again in the news following the Greens’ announcement of a new platform. The party’s call to legalise the use of some illicit drugs has provoked predictable cries of opposition and alarm.

What is much more interesting is a proposed new independent “national regulatory authority” to develop “continuously evaluated, evidence-based policies and programs”.

This suggests what is needed: politically neutral policy decisions based on the best evidence, integrated with other types of knowledge, and engaging all voices, including people who use drugs.

Few areas of policy-making are more emotionally charged than drugs policy. Yet if we resist knee-jerk calls to arms and engage in informed policy-setting that involves many stakeholders and types of knowledge, we can save many more lives, reduce needless suffering, and alleviate the financial burden of ineffective drugs policies.


Professor Alison Ritter is Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the UNSW-based National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. She spoke at “UNSOMNIA: What keeps you up at night?” on December 1, the launch event for UNSW’s Grand Challenges program.