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Time for Australia to abandon ‘failed war on drugs’

Australia must abandon its failed war on drugs and reopen the debate over legalising and regulating their use, according…

Consumption of cocaine globally rose by 27% between 1998 and 2008. AAP

Australia must abandon its failed war on drugs and reopen the debate over legalising and regulating their use, according to a report to be released tomorrow.

The report, emotively titled “The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are letting it happen”, is the work of non-profit body Australia21 and based on a roundtable attended by former premiers and health ministers, and a former police commissioner, among other high-profile figures.

It has the support of new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, who wrote: “An issue that worried me while I was in NSW politics was the police hitting railway stations with sniffer dogs. It was marijuana that was the focus. I did not think it was the best use of police time. People were breaking no other laws. This was victimless crime and this was seen as a new way to engage police resources. I wanted them to do things like make public transport safe and clean up Cabramatta.”

Founder of Australia21 and report co-author Bob Douglas, a former President of The Public Health Association of Australia, said the war on drugs was “conceptually unsound. The Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, and [the prohibition on drugs] essentially passes the control and the distribution and the promotion of drugs to criminal gangs. It’s not worked anywhere in the world.

“The drug market will always be able to outbid law enforcement.”

The roundtable was a response to a Global Commission on Drug Policy report last year that declared the 40-year war on drugs launched by US President Richard Nixon a comprehensive failure.

The commission said that between 1998 and 2008, consumption of opiates had increased worldwide by 34.5%, consumption of cocaine by 27% and consumption of cannabis by 8.5%.

The toll of the ongoing crackdown on drugs in Australia was “400 deaths a year - that’s more than a death a day,” Professor Douglas said. “Our prisons are chockablock with people with drug problems, and we’re making criminals of our kids.”

He stressed the Australia21 report did not advocate a solution. “We’re advocating a debate.” Possibilities to be considered in that debate “range from decriminalisation to legalisation and control … what do we do with nicotine and alcohol?

“The evidence does not suggest we’re doing the country a service by criminalising its use and the whole process. The prohibition process has exacerbated rather than helped with the problem.”

In 1997, as part of a team at the Australian National University, Professor Douglas proposed that Australia be the first country to evaluate the use of heroin treatment for addicts in a controlled, medically supervised trial. The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy endorsed the push. But Australia came under heavy pressure from the US not to go ahead with it, he said.

“That was a landmark moment when [then Prime Minister] John Howard declared a tough-on-drugs policy and said this [proposed trial] was sending the wrong message.”

In his time as NSW Premier, Bob Carr felt that police resources were being wasted pursuing casual drug users. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Michael Wooldridge, who served as a health minister in the Howard Government, said in the report that “the key message is that we have 40 years of experience of a law and order approach to drugs, and it has failed.”

Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery said he was “strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing all drugs. A first step towards such a regime could be decriminalisation, similar to the approach adopted 10 years ago in Portugal or an adaptation of that approach.”

Portugal controversially decriminalised the use and possession of all drugs in 2001. A study published in 2010 in the British Journal of Criminology found that although there had been a slight increase in drug use among adults since the change, there had also been a decline in teen drug use, HIV infections and AIDS cases. Drug seizures by police had increased.

Jake Najman, Director of the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre at the University of Queensland, said there was now copious evidence that the war on drugs had been, at best, as effective as the protracted, costly and ultimately disastrous war in Vietnam.

Longitudinal records of drug use from the US, England and Australia showed that while levels of illicit drug use have fluctuated, high levels of drug use continue in all three countries, Professor Najman said. Other studies in countries where drug use is a capital crime, such as Thailand and Indonesia, also show that high levels of drug use continue.

“It’s clear that a country cannot punish users in ways that eliminate the drug problem. For example high levels of illicit drug use continue to be observed in Bali, despite the sometimes severe response of authorities there for what would be minor offences here.

“There are now a large number of researchers and experts who are concerned that the consequences of current policies are to make the drug problem worse, and increase the negative effects which are a consequence of illicit drug use.

“About 50% of all people in prison have used illicit drugs before being incarcerated. Many are in prison directly or indirectly because they use drugs. Massive resources are being wasted with existing policies.

“A new approach is desperately needed.”

Ann Roche, Director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University, said that because drug use was complex, “many of the approaches we hope and expect might work, often don’t work. Worse still, there are often unintended consequences of laws designed to prevent problems.

“The main motivation for criminalising drug use is so that it acts as a deterrent. The facts suggest that it doesn’t necessarily do this, or do it to the extent we expect.

“We need to examine the growing evidence base in this area. Let the facts, rather than emotion, beliefs or rhetoric guide our decision making. In that way, we can identify best ways forward for our community and the individuals involved.”

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Warren Walsh

    logged in via Facebook

    The War on Drugs is the biggest price support mechanism ever devised for agriculture. It provides a market for what are basically road weeds, cannabis, opium and coca, taking them from free to very expensive with a simple stroke of the pen.

    Historically the prohibitions stem from racist legislation, anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese and anti-Native American and nothing to do with any intrinsic dangers of the various substances.

    A multi-national industry of production and supply is matched by…

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  2. Danny Hoardern

    Analyst Programmer

    Sooner or later, Australians will realise that it is better to divert $2.24 billion dollars a year from the black market to taxes (this is estimated profit according to

    Sooner or later, Australians will look at US states that have legalised medical marijuana and realise these states haven't fallen apart. They have seen a 9% reduction in road fatalities [

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  3. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Interesting to see the effect of decriminalisation in Portugal and Switzerland... none.

    This "war on drugs" notion comes straight from the puritanical swamp of the USA where prohibition is the first stone of choice. And it has deeply racist roots.

    It has been imposed by duress and threat on many countries - made contingent on trade and aid. It has spread misery, violence and organised crime - as ever - takes the field.

    But I'm not holding my breath for a sensible evidence based political response. This makes gay marriage look like a proposal from the P&C.

    Still it is heartening to see such a bunch of luminaries making a sensible contribution and getting a few facts on the table.

    But this is not a reasonable or rational discussion.

  4. Shane Kidd

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I agree Peter, i wouldn't hold my breath.

    While the US can still push military bases on us, they're still going to influence any law reforms in regards to drugs.

    They make too much money to allow rogue countries such as australia to steal their wealth.

    The Labour govt has shown they're no different to the Liberal govt when it comes to enforcing US world policy.

    We may have to wait another generation for the baby boomers to get out of the way, with all their hangups and fears, before common sense finally prevails.

  5. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Awesome Article, Legalise and tax, instead of locking up these non violent non criminal people in a violent criminal training ground (Jail) we should rehabilitate them - surely it will cost less to rehabilitate and re-introduce people into society allowing them to be productive than it is to condition them into criminals?

  6. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    So Carr says that "in his time as NSW Premier, (he) felt that police resources were being wasted pursuing casual drug users." Which is why, while Premier of NSW, he initiated such a significant change of policy? Didn't he? Oh, it was too hard, was it? Too many opposed vested interests? And then there were the churches and the media and the shock jocks. But now someone else is Premier it is time for someone else to be bold and take up the good fight.

    Spare me.

    1. Shane Kidd

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Seems to be the way of all the "criticisers" of the war on drugs.

      When they're in power, they don't mention it.

      Same goes for Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery ... as directgor of public prosecuter he was in the perfect position to influence change ... but now he's not.

  7. Andrew Nielsen

    logged in via Facebook

    The War On Paedophiles has failed. Millions of dollars has been spent on incarcerating paedophiles and still there are paedophiles in the community. Pedophiles are stigmatised and scared to come forward for treatment. Whose problem is this? Well, if you have a child that might be raped by an unregulated, HIV positive paedophile, it is your problem. The current regeim has enriched illegal purveyers of kiddie porn and paedophile rings; this must be brought to a stop. The Kiddie69 thinktank has released a policy recommending that children should be available for legal private use in Australia. Child pornography (really) was legalised in some Scandanavian countries in the 1960s, and the Scandanavians are always ahead and better than Australia on social policy.

    1. Luke van Halen

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrew Nielsen

      May I ask if you are being humorous or if you honestly think that my having a beer on the weekend is the same as slavery?

    2. Danny Hoardern

      Analyst Programmer

      In reply to Luke van Halen

      I think we need to be very wary of people that attempt to perceive paedophilia as less of a danger than what it really is by comparing it to consensual drug usage.

  8. John Hopkins

    Social Engineer

    I personally, would like nothing less than the "Drug War Scum (those who perpetuate this moronic "War")" to be publicly hanged. Further, those who have been destroyed by it, should be permitted to "Jeer" the filth as they are hanged.

    After all, The Nazis were executed for their Insidious actions.
    This "War" is all about the "Religious Moral Minority" Ruling the majority with an Iron Fist, .

    Religious Nutbags started this war & Religious Nutbags are the MORONS who wish it to be continued.

    Enough is enough. There MUST be Public Disobedience to the point where we actually must physically "Take On" Feral Thug Pigs (morally bankrupt Police).

    Civil War is inevitable if this attack upopn citizens BASIC HUMAN RIGHT to consume ANY product that WE deem fit, is continued.

    Australias Civil War will more than likely start in Queensland within the next 4-7 years.

    Time for the "anti drug minority" to "pay the piper".