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Drug Prohibition: Chapter I.

Chapter I:
Drug Prohibition: A Call for Change

Wodak, Alex, and Ron Owens. Drug
Prohibition: A Call for Change
University of New South Wales Press, 1996.

Reprinted with the permission of New South Wales Press. All rights reserved.

| Chapter I. | Chapter II. | Chapter III. | Chapter IV. | Chapter V. | Chapter VI.-VIII. |


| i. Introduction | I. The Current Situation in Australia | II. Facing Reality | III. The Global Picture | IV. Towards Reform | V. The Principle of Harm Minimisation |


i. Introduction

One hundred years ago, Australia prohibited its first drug. The South Australian parliament banned opium smoking in 1895, when the Chinese were the only opium smokers in the country. In 1926, the Commonwealth of Australia banned cannabis when it was virtually unknown; it banned heroin outright in 1953. The cost of enforcing illicit drug laws in 1988 was estimated conservatively at $258 million; what are the benefits of that investment?

Prohibition is increasingly regarded as flawed in principle and a resounding failure in practice. This book is about the transition to a new era where we will try to live as best we can in a world from which drugs currently defined as illicit will never be eradicated.

Illicit drugs are rarely out of the news. Numerous Royal Commissions, parliamentary inquiries and other official investigations reflect a strong unease in the community. Illicit drugs rank very highly when Australians are surveyed about issues that concern them. Policies dealing with illicit drugs affect us all; even if you have never taken such a drug, prohibition impinges on you. Most Australians living in big cities have bars on their windows and pay high insurance premiums; this is because people who use prohibited drugs pay inflated prices that can only be financed by crime.

In this book, we explain why arguments against prohibition matter, how prohibition developed, whether it works and what alternatives exist. Finally, we suggest ways of achieving progress. This book is intended as a guide for people who are bewildered by the drug debate and wish to understand the case for reform. We correct many popular misconceptions about illicit drugs and answer some frequently asked questions.

The terms "decriminalisation" and "legalisation" scarcely appear in this book because they are so often used ambiguously; we prefer to simply describe the options available and which ones we favour. We use the term "drug policy reform" to cover a range of options, knowing that different responses are appropriate for different conditions and that conditions change over time. Policies may look similar but details of implementation often set them far apart.


I. The Current Situation in Australia

In Australia, drugs like heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis cannot be legally cultivated, produced, transported, sold, bought, possessed or consumed. If you breach these laws, you run the risk of being detected, charged, prosecuted, and sentenced. Penalties are often severe. More than 30,000 arrests involving illicit drugs are made each year, of which over 80 per cent relate to cannabis.

Since prohibition began, policies have frequently been hardened, penalties made more severe and law enforcement resources steadily increased. The number of people charged with and convicted of drug-related crimes increases almost every year in Australia and most other countries. At least half the inmates of our gaols are serving sentences for drug-related offences. Policy has been like a ratchet that could only be tightened. Is there any other government program which repeatedly fails to meet its goals yet is allocated more and more resources?

In just four months in 1995, ten people died in Canberra, six in Goulburn and nine in Perth from heroin overdoses. In contrast, in 1970 only 20 people died from heroin overdoses in Australia. These days we lose approximately 450 young Australians each year from opiates, with most deaths due to overdose. During the 1980s, the number of deaths from heroin in Australia increased 170 per cent according to government statistics. These deaths were largely preventable. The recent, unusually high purity of street heroin was probably a major reason for this spate of deaths. Street heroin has recently been up to 60-65 per cent pure compared with usual levels of around 10-15 per cent. Because heroin is an illegal drug, there are no controls over purity. Very little information is available to users about fluctuating purity levels or contaminants. Moreover, if you use heroin, society strips away your dignity and self-esteem. Your rights under law to the presumption of innocence may be lost, along with your standing in the community, your health and your well-being. You achieve the status of a criminal and enter the world of a worthless "drug addict".

Such are the direct results of 100 years of prohibition. More humane, effective and sensible approaches to dealing with mood-altering drugs are urgently required. Prohibition of drugs like heroin has not worked in Australia for decades.


II. Facing Reality

We live in an imperfect world where major injustice is widespread. Just as the poor will always be with us, so to there will always be people who enjoy a chemical escape from the world of reality. Perhaps 100,000 young Australians use heroin and probably even more use amphetamines. Millions use cannabis - mostly infrequently. We may wish that people did not desire mood-altering drugs, including those which are currently illicit, but we cannot deny that demand for these substances persists. Education campaigns have had only minimal impact. Unless we develop effective ways of reducing demand, we must assume that drugs like heroin and amphetamines will continue to be consumed by large numbers of Australians for some decades.


III. The Global Picture

Australians should take great pride in the fact that we respond to legal and illicit drugs with rare thoughtfulness and effectiveness. This is not to say that we do particularly well, only that most other countries handle their illicit drugs even more poorly. Global production of heroin and cocaine has been increasing for many years. Opium cultivation is now also spreading. Until recently, opium was grown only in the Golden Triangle - Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos - and the Golden Crescent - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Within the last few years, opium cultivation started in China, some Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, South America and Africa. Global drug consumption is also increasing. Illicit drug use is documented in over 120 countries, while HIV infection associated with needle sharing is documented in over 80 countries. Illicit drug use is now occurring in countries where it was unknown until the 1990s.


IV. Towards Reform

The epidemic of HIV has not only made drug use far more hazardous but also forced the community to seriously reconsider illicit drug use. Australia"s success in preventing the spread of HIV infection among injecting drug users, despite the many obstacles created by prohibition, has made many people wonder whether banning drugs was really an effective way to manage them. Controlling HIV among drug users only became possible when many prohibition props were dismantled. The community benefited considerably from this new found flexibility. Further liberalisation would bring even more benefits.

A vigorous debate over drug policy during the last decade saw senior and influential members of the community increasingly advocate reform, while a diminishing band support prohibition. Criticism of prohibition increasingly comes not only from health professionals but also law enforcement officials. John Johnson, the Police Commissioner of Tasmania and Chairman of the Managing Committee of the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence (ABCI), questioned the viability of prohibition in 1995, quoting the dismal results recorded in the 1994 Annual Report of the ABCI (SMH 16.6.95). Mr Raymond Kendall, Secretary-General of Interpol, and Chief Constable Keith Hellawell, Chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers in the United Kingdom, have made similar remarks, as have a growing number of police chiefs in major US cities.

Opponents of reform usually base their arguments on three grounds: "legalisation" will simply recruit more drug users; there are no satisfactory models for reform; and the current lack of popular appeal for reform is an insurmountable political obstacle. We utterly reject these arguments. Cannabis law reform in South Australia and the ACT, as well as a dozen other countries, has not produced more users. Even prohibition supporters concede that progress will not be achieved until the enormous profits are taken out of the illicit drug trade. Lucrative profits propel the search for new consumers. There are a number of historical and contemporary options available to us for dealing with cannabis and other currently illicit drugs. These comply with our international treaty obligations. Popular support for reform is growing. Sooner or later, the long-term advantages of reform will force the political process to accommodate any short-term disadvantages.

In our view, increasing the health, social, legal and economic costs of drug use in order to minimise the number of people who use drugs, the very basis of prohibition, produces more net harm to individuals and society than accepting the inevitability of some drug use and arranging for individuals who cannot or wilt not desist to obtain less harmful forms of supply. Some assume that lower-priced street drugs will inevitably result in more consumers. Others accept that taking the profit out of the illicit drug market will just as certainly shrink the black market. As support for prohibition in many countries has fallen, interest in alternative models has grown. Authorities around the world are increasingly recognising that most problems associated with illegal drugs are caused by prohibition rather than being the inevitable result of their pharmacological properties. Interest in different ways of responding to illicit drugs is growing. Experience of alternative models is increasing. The Netherlands and Switzerland have been recent innovators. Historical experience with different regulated models is becoming better known. Apart from the lengthy but poorly coordinated and evaluated experience in Britain since 1926, we now know more about the morphine clinics in 44 US cities between 1919 and 1923. Injectable morphine was also prescribed in Italy in the 1980s.

As popular support for prohibition is withering in many countries, support for reform is slowly growing. Leadership is being tested. Some politicians prefer to lead by opinion poll. Others argue that leadership requires more than simply expounding whatever shows up in polls.

We hope that this book leads to a more informed debate on this subject. We do not pretend to be neutral but have tried to be scrupulously fair. In our view, prohibition has served its time. Alternatives exist and we believe it is time to consider them.

We do not pretend these are perfect solutions; we only believe that they are better, or rather, less bad, than the alternatives.


V. The Principle of Harm Minimisation

When you drink alcohol, which contributes to the death of about 6500 Australians each year, the law requires that you are told exactly how much alcohol there is in the container you have just bought. Advertising campaigns inform you about safe levels of consumption. Quality control programs cover alcohol manufacture and distribution. Whether or not you wish to drink alcohol is a matter of personal choice. Society attempts to influence your consumption by controls on price and availability, and laws covering your behaviour when intoxicated. The aim is to reduce the damage you might do to yourself and others while minimising the limitations to your enjoyment of drinking. Government taxes help to cover the costs of alcohol to the community.

Similarly, if you smoke cigarettes, which contribute to the deaths of about 19,000 Australians each year, the law requires that you are informed of the levels of nicotine and tar in the tobacco. Advertising campaigns inform you of the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Tobacco remains a legal drug, with quality control programs covering manufacture and distribution. Whether or not you wish to smoke cigarettes is your choice. Society attempts to minimise the damage you will do to yourself and others by restricting where you can smoke. The government also imposes taxes that help to cover the costs of smoking to the community.

The approaches described above can be described as "harm minimisation". On 2 April 1985, Australia officially adopted a policy of harm minimisation in relation to illicit drugs, which means that we are nationally committed to reducing the adverse consequences of drug use. This commitment requires us to consider whether the options presented in this book produce fewer health, social and economic adverse consequences than currently occur under prohibition. We invite our readers to join us on this journey. The extent of drug use matters, but only in so far as it increases or decreases harm. Focusing on drug use rather than drug-related harm is like concentrating on a mirage.

Many predicted for decades that communism would collapse, yet when it happened it did so with astonishing suddenness. We believe that in a similar way the collapse of prohibition, though seemingly impossible at present, will be regarded as inevitable in retrospect. Orderly contingency planning now is nothing less than responsible management.


| Chapter I. | Chapter II. | Chapter III. | Chapter IV. | Chapter V. | Chapter VI.-VIII. |

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