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The War on Drugs has failed – now what?

A detective displays seized methamphetamine and cash from a raid in February 2012 that involved an international drug ring. AAP image/Cortlan Bennett

It’s official – the so-called War on Drugs has failed. A report released by thinktank Australia21 in parliament today makes it clear that not only has it failed miserably, but that political elites around the world have known this for a long time.

If, however, the aim of the War on Drugs was to create a dynamic and vigorous black market, and provide an ever-expanding variety of drugs of increasing purity at lower and lower prices while enriching organised crime, bikie gangs and corrupt police, then drug prohibition has been an overwhelming success.

Whose problem is this?

Very interesting, but not your problem? Think about that again. If you have sons and daughters, brothers or sisters or nephews and nieces, then this is your problem. If you own property, pay insurance on your property and have expensive alarms, then this is also your problem.

Canadian forces on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2006. Paul May

If you feel uncomfortable about Australian soldiers in Afghanistan being shot at with guns and bullets paid for from the lucrative proceeds of opium sales, then this is your problem. If the idea that your compatriots dying of AIDS or cancer cannot get some relief from medical cannabis offends you, then this is also your problem.

What drug prohibition has achieved is make a bad problem much worse at great expense. Three-quarters of the funding of measures against illicit drugs is allocated to law enforcement. That is, to customs, police, courts and prisons. About 17% is spent on efforts to reduce demand with 10% going to education campaigns and 7% to treatment. Only 1% is spent on harm reduction, such as needle syringe program.

The rest is spent treating medical complications and miscellaneous costs. This 75: 17: 1 division is always referred to by our politicians as “a balanced approach”.

We don’t have much of an idea about the return on investment for drug law enforcement. But a 1994 RAND Corporation study on cocaine estimated that the return for US citizens on a US$1 investment was 15 cents for eradicating coca plants in South America, 32 cents for interdicting supplies of refined cocaine between South and North America, 52 cents for US Customs and police but $7.46 for treatment of US citizens with severe cocaine problems.

The same study found that 93% of US government spending was allocated to the three loss-making interventions while 7% was allocated to the only profitable response – treatment.

Not sound business

A big part of the problem is that governments rain gold bars on things that don’t work well while feeding small change to health and social interventions that are really good investments.

Remember the last time you heard a talkback radio commentator tell you that methadone doesn’t work? Well, it gives a return of $7 for every $1 invested. Needle syringe program send the wrong message? Every dollar spent saves $27 overall, including $4 in health-care costs.

Politicians from both sides of politics love to keep telling the community that more decisions have to be made like they are in the world of business. They want us to think of policy decisions in terms of a balance sheet.

Two people attending the Vigil for the Victims of the Drug War on the Drug War’s 40th Anniversary. Lafayette Park, Washington, DC, in June 17, 2011. M.V. Jantzen

The alternative is to allocate scarce resources to policies and program that are known to not work but have strong sentimental interest or the support of powerful vested interests, such as private prisons and those employed in the criminal justice system for drug prohibition.

It’s also easy for them to advocate for the War on Drugs because many parents who have small children imagine are terrified that their kids will be offered drugs.

So where to from here?

If it’s clear that Plan A, with it’s focus on law enforcement, doesn’t work, it’s not yet clear what Plan B is going to be. Part of the difficulty is the poor quality of the debate – sometimes referred to as the “drug problem” problem.

I was one of 24 participants in the meeting (on 31 January) convened by Australia21 that the report was based on. I also participated in writing the report.

Australia21 believes that this country should re-examine our drug policy by having a national debate. A lively debate about drug policy is now taking place in Europe, North America and Latin America.

Australia21 believes that it’s up to the community and our politicians to make the policy choices. But Australia21 accepts that re-defining drugs as primarily a health and social issue is the threshold decision. If that is agreed, then many other things follow.

There are many more options than just prohibition or legalisation. Most change happens incrementally, and change in drug policy is likely to follow the same pattern.

Smokers High Life

Taxing and regulating cannabis, for instance, would allow for warning labels and information for people seeking help on packets. It would ensure that the concentration of active mood-altering agents is kept within a specified band, minimise sales to under-age people, and generate revenue to be used to fund drug prevention and treatment. None of this is possible under the current model.

Some people will no doubt announce that any liberalisation of our drug laws will followed by a flood of cheap drugs. Leaving aside the fact that this is what has happened under drug prohibition, the international experience of drug law liberalisation has not resulted in increased drug use.

Switzerland, for instance, defined drugs as primarily a health and social issue 20 years ago. Drug treatment was expanded, liberalised and better funded. Between 1990 and 2002, the estimated number of new heroin users in Zurich fell by 82%, along with reductions in new HIV infections among injecting drug users, drug overdose deaths, crime and quantity of heroin seized.

What matters even more than avoiding increased drug use is achieving a reduction in the number of drug-related deaths, the number of people with diseases associated with drugs, crime and corruption.

It’s time Australia had an honest debate about how to manage illicit drugs in the real world rather than pretend that we can create a drug-free world.

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