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We can’t eradicate drugs, but we can stop people dying from them

Drug checking would make music festivals safer. Mixtribe/Flickr, CC BY-NC

We can’t eradicate drugs, but we can stop people dying from them

Drug checking would make music festivals safer. Mixtribe/Flickr, CC BY-NC

There is something very special about illicit drugs. If they don’t always make the drug user behave irrationally, they certainly cause many non-users to behave that way. – Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Lester Grinspoon

Last night’s Four Corners focused on party drugs and the policies Australia is implementing to combat their use. Not only is what we’re doing not working, we’re falling behind the rest of the world and what evidence says is best to ensure we have fewer deaths from illicit drugs.

Going back a few decades in global attitudes, drugs were bad, users were evil and the deaths of consumers were proof of the inherent danger of drugs and an inevitable outcome if people continued to insist on breaking the law.

Now, if we look at the drug policies in place in other countries, medical and recreational cannabis are being embraced, as well as safe injecting and consumption rooms.

The European Union continues to roll out drug-checking programs (where party drugs are tested for strength at music festivals and other sites where they’re consumed). In April, the United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs policy is considering decriminalising personal drug use.

In the midst of this, Australia plods on with its punitive and prohibitionist ideals, despite the rest of the world moving on. Whether it’s the use of sniffer dogs at music festivals (which an ombudsman’s report found was ineffective in detecting drug dealers), or roadside drug testing (for which there is no evidence it prevents crashes), we seem happy to adopt interventions that have little evidence behind them, instead of those that do.

The most fundamental shift on drugs policy worldwide has been from moralising about use to focusing on keeping young people safe. More people are beginning accept that nowhere will ever be “drug free”. Now over a decade old, US drug policy expert Marsha Rosenbaum’s “Safety First” tells parents to replace “Just Say No” with “Just Say Know”.

The global war on drugs

While it may now be touted as a public health initiative, the birth of the global war on drugs was largely ideological. This has been well described both in Australia and the rest of the world.

Sniffer dogs at festivals have been found to be ineffective and potentially dangerous. So why do we still insist on their use? Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also known as The Shafer Report of 1972, was shelved because it concluded there was “little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis”. That was not what US President Richard Nixon wanted to hear.

When MDMA was banned, the professor of psychiatry at Harvard University successfully argued it had utility as a medicine, until US President Ronald Reagan forced the ban through executive action. And so politics continues to trump science.

Since the war on drugs began, the entire market has changed. Drugs are now researched online, ordered from industrial chemists producing them to pharmaceutical purity, paid for using cryptocurrencies and delivered by the postie. The latest have never been identified and are undetectable either by sniffer dogs or routine toxicological tests.

That is not to say that the market is any safer – far from it. But drugs are now easier to get and many can’t be detected.

Why we’re not moving on

There is some suggestion that in NSW, at least, all of the political capital there is to spend on drugs has already been spent on medical cannabis, so there just isn’t the appetite to open another front in the growing war on the War on Drugs.

More broadly, Australian politicians are afraid for their political careers – they fear that a perceived back-flip on drugs policy might raise questions about their judgement.

However, with significant changes likely to emerge out of the UN General Assembly’s special session on drugs in April 2016, difficult questions are likely to be asked of those who have historically pursued, against all the evidence to the contrary, the global war on drugs.

Perhaps the most likely and disappointingly mundane reason that Australian politicians shy away from any debate on drugs policy is the multi-billion-dollar “sunk cost” of the global war on drugs to date. So much has been invested in our current and failing approach that they are pressured to keep the status quo, no matter what evidence is brought to the table.

Sniffer dogs at music festivals – which the NSW Ombudsman dismissed as a waste of money and even potentially dangerous – cost just shy of A$1 million a year per jurisdiction. For that sort of money, ten drug checking programs could be rolled out across Australia within weeks and to far greater effect than has ever been observed in the history of the use of sniffer dogs.

If our political counterparts wish to continue with a modicum of credibility on drugs policy, now would be an excellent and potentially politically rewarding time to start listening to the evidence.