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Rap sheet: does Bob Carr’s record on drug reform stand up?

It’s worth taking another look at Bob Carr’s record on decriminalising drugs. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The Australia21 thinktank has today released a report describing the war on drugs as a failure.

Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr, part of the working group that developed the report, today told the ABC he supported decriminalisation of small amounts of drugs.

Carr said: “We wouldn’t have armies of police patrolling outside nightclubs and pubs hoping to snatch someone who’s got an ecstasy tablet in his or her pocket of purse. And we wouldn’t be having police chasing individual users of marijuana.”

Carr went on to say he had effectively decriminalised small amounts of cannabis for personal use during his time as NSW premier. But Carr also introduced the very drug sniffer dogs he now laments.

The Conversation spoke with UNSW Associate Professor Alex Steel to discover just how much Bob Carr lived up to the ideals he now espouses when he wielded power.

Is Bob Carr rewriting history by claiming he is concerned about police conducting major efforts to apprehend people carrying small amounts of drugs, like marijuana, for personal use, because this happened under his watch?

Well, he is correct to say the drug summit happened while he was premier, that the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme came in under his premiership, and it is also correct to say the (one) drug injecting room came in under his premiership. But it’s also undeniable that at the same time he was relentlessly banging the drum on law and order. Those two approaches work against each other in many ways.

He introduced drug sniffer dogs to NSW and so it is a bit strange that he is now complaining about the use of sniffer dogs by police to hassle people outside nightclubs. That is, in large measure, what sniffer dogs were introduced to do. But if his comments signal a change of heart that should be applauded.

It is clear that drug use and drug crime are a significant factors in the steep rise in imprisonment rates in the last few decades. NSW has the nations highest prison population and that is as a result of policies fostered under the Carr and successor Labor governments. How did they create that culture where law and order became such a prominent political issue?

One strategy that seems to have been taken was for Labor to be harder on law and order than the Liberals. That strategy meant Labor kept moving further and further to the right with the Liberals trying to follow. It meant there wasn’t really any space left in the politics for a considered discussion of the best way to deal with issues underlying crime. Whenever a problem came up, there had to be a new offence created instantly.

In lots of ways it is easiest for politicians to create a new law to deal with an issue. Laws don’t cost anything to make. It costs a lot more to develop and fund comprehensive treatment plans and diversion programs for people caught up in drugs. The difficulty is the political cycle is short term and many of these solutions are long term. You are not likely to see any clear results for a large number of years - after the next election.

But on the other hand, if you say we are going to double the number of police on the street looking for a particular type of behaviour and we are going to throw them all in jail then you will very quickly get a spike in arrests, a spike in convictions and a rise in prison populations.

It is a very simple message to be able to spread through the media about your ability to create some sort of solution. The long term cost of such approaches can be glossed over or ignored.

The real problem with law and order political strategies is that they are a losing battle. If you create a sense in the community that there is a lot of crime and you are going to be doing something about it, then you increase the level of fear of crime, which can be used to get support for your measures.

You need to keep creating crime problems to keep being tough on crime. But that means you don’t ever produce an environment when crime is not a community concern. The more you talk about crime the harder it is to prove that you have effectively dealt with crime, so it then forces this constant, escalating process of finding new forms of crime and dealing with them in an electioneering sort of way.

Is the prospect of decriminalisation, as recommended, realistic? Portugal did it in a one fell swoop but in an Australian context is it realistic that it could happen at a state or nationwide level?

There is a problem at the moment in the sense that we have both federal and state laws dealing with possession of illegal drugs. If a state decided to legalise possession of drugs, there would still be commonwealth offences prohibiting possession of drugs, so we are now at a point where we need a coordinated approach at both state and federal level if we are to change the laws comprehensively. On the other hand the real issue is not only about the laws, but about the policing of those laws.

If, despite these laws on the books, NSW police decided they were not going to lay charges for people in possession of small amounts of drugs, it would be in effect a de facto de-criminalisation. Commonwealth laws wouldn’t affect this because the AFP don’t involve themselves in street policing. It really comes down to the signals the government gives to the police as to how it should enforce these laws, and police decisions as to resources they put into enforcing these laws.

And you can see that the existence of the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme goes some way towards that but police retain the discretion to charge someone or to give a caution. So there’s an issue of whether there is some net widening there because rather than letting somebody go they now have the option of giving them a formal caution.

Is it likely today Australia21 recommendations will simply disappear off the agenda?

There is a sense that the issue has been around for too long and it is time to do something about it. If it was a report that came out of the blue and on its own then it probably would disappear. But there is a growing momentum internationally to recognise the failures and to change our approach.

It’s unlikely that politicians are likely to turn around immediately and change their approach but if the issues get discussed in the media and that starts a broader community conversation then there could be a change of climate and politicians might be a little bit braver about what they are saying.

The statement Bob Carr made this morning is an indication of a politician who is cautiously saying, look we do need to change. He says this is change “at the margins” but at least he is suggesting there is some need change and he supports it.
If a momentum for change builds then we might be able to effect some significant changes.

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