Why can’t we agree on drugs?

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IN Sydney motor bike gangs have turned streets and shopping centres into battle grounds. In Mexico people are being murdered, and their dismembered bodies put on public display. And some people argue our drug policies are a success!

I was a participant early this year in a think tank organised by Australia 21 which resulted in a strong call for significant changes to Australia’s drug policy. Former NSW crown prosecutor, Nicholas Cowdery QC, summarised the perspective of the group stating: “I am strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing all drugs.”

However, a recent poll published in the Fairfax newspapers suggests that about two thirds of Australians believe that we should not decriminalise drugs.

This should not be surprising! It is more than a decade since there was a serious debate in this country around the best ways to control illicit drugs. There will never be a perfect system – we do not live in a perfect world.

Just as laws against homicide do not entirely prevent murder or laws against speeding do not make all drivers compliant with posted speeds, it is unlikely that laws governing illicit drugs will stop people from accessing, distributing and using them. However, we can do better.

Success of prohibition of one of the illicit drugs simply means the market moves to an alternative. The illicit drug trade is the epitome of the free market laws of supply and demand – when supply is limited the price goes up and profits increase. The more effective are the police, the higher the profits and the greater the temptation for new players. Last year, the Australian Crime Commission estimated the cost of illicit drugs as between $10 billion and $15 billion dollars every year.

Over the last decade we have regularly been fed a diet of successful police raids. Senior police officers illustrate their success with huge caches of seized contraband. The police have been successful in delivering according to the task assigned to them. For this, they do deserve recognition and congratulations from the community. However, it is time to ask ourselves if we are making headway.

These drugs have been banned because they are harmful to the health and well-being of individuals, devastating to families and friends, and undermine good order and productivity in our communities. Instead of governments being in control, illicit drugs are regulated by the criminal gangs with bikie gangs playing a major role in Australia.

However, this is an international criminal issue and the international scene has a significant impact on Australia. Criminal organisations with global ambitions often choose to operate from failed or failing states as they are less policed, culturally more accommodating towards bribery and invariably open to corruption.

Compare the failures in police and criminal sanctions of illicit drugs with the success of our approach to tobacco. According to the Cancer Council of Australia, 16 per cent of Australians smoked tobacco in 2010 compared to 72 per cent of men who smoked at the end of World War II. In the ACT, the figure is now closer to 12 per cent. When governments are in control with levers like price, advertising, marketing and health promotion, it is possible to take effective action not just to reduce harm but also to reduce usage.

Contrast the steady decrease in the use of tobacco with hurdy-gurdy use of illicit drugs with wildly varying use and harm depending on supply and demand as dictated by criminal elements profiting from prohibitionist policies. Illicit drugs should not suddenly be made widely available. However, there are much more effective ways for governments to control their use than by neglecting their responsibilities and leaving it to criminal gangs.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.


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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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