“My critique of how we deal with drugs in society is just that – that we use these anecdotes to apply to everyone and the anecdotes are not representative.”Dr Carl Hart, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University
DRUGS & SOCIETY
Drugs, both licit and illicit, fulfil three important aspects to our lives: pleasure, pain and purpose. The use of various substances to enhance or alter our mood, to help us deal with physical and emotional pain and to treat a range of medical conditions is littered throughout history. Few societies, if any, have not indulged in mind and mood-altering substances of one kind or another.
Drugs are as much a part of culture and civilisation as any other tool that humans have developed to enjoy and ease the burden of life and deal with a range of ailments. Drugs help us escape from reality, relieve pain and – in many cases – save lives. It is hard to imagine a world that is drug-free, and many would agree that this notion is at best absurd, and at worst dangerous. If a drug-free world is not feasible, then it is equally hard to envisage a world where drug use is completely risk-free.
We know there are risks associated with most drug-taking, we see the media reports every day and few of us are not touched by the personal stories of lives ruined. Harms from drug use can be both acute and chronic and include a range of health and social risks. People who use illicit drugs are particularly vulnerable to harm. They run the risk of physical and mental illness, overdose, blood-borne viruses, accidents and injuries, lost employment and travel opportunities, a criminal record and incarceration.
Yet we also know that alcohol and tobacco cause significant problems in the community. Tobacco is by far the biggest killer, and alcohol use is responsible for many accidents, injuries, violence and chronic illnesses.
So while we may acknowledge that legal drugs are harmful, our attitudes toward illicit drug use is far more damming, judgmental, condemning and hypocritical.
However one of the most severe consequences of illicit drug use isn’t directly linked to the drug itself.
Like most societies in the world, and consistently shown throughout history, drugs form an important part of our community. We use drugs for a range of reasons and have mostly been developed for the benefits that they bring to people.
While there are obvious medical and health benefits in drug use, there are also positive social and recreational aspects as well. Consider your own drug use: what role do drugs play in your life? You might consume alcohol to either celebrate, commiserate, relieve stress or just relax, and many people use illicit drugs for exactly the same reasons. Illicit drug policy is littered with double standards and hypocrisy.
As a police officer you would be aware that alcohol causes significant and widespread harms across a range of measures including family and community violence, accidents and injuries as well as chronic conditions such as liver and brain disease.
Yet we continue to discriminate between drugs such as alcohol and drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, drugs that in relative terms are safer and less problematic.
We can no longer continue to claim that illicit drugs are illicit because they are more dangerous or harmful. This is a fallacy. The legal status of drugs has nothing to do with the potential risk. LEAP promotes the notion that illicit drug laws and policies such as total prohibition are more harmful than the drugs themselves.
Drug use occurs on a spectrum, ranging from experimental and occasional use through to highly dependent levels. There are risks at all levels of use. However, given the number of people that use illicit drugs it is clear that the majority do so without problems.
Surveys of the Australian population have consistently shown that one third of the community has at some stage used an illicit drug. Police usually deal with the more problematic and harmful cases of illicit drug use so it is understandable that many police would be concerned about any moves to change current drug policies.
People use drugs for a range of reasons. Despite what the media and some who promote the moral belief that drug use is evil or immoral, the majority of drug use is non-problematic and beneficial.
LEAP Australia promotes the notion that illicit drug policies cause more harms than drugs themselves.
THE COST OF DRUG PROHIBITION
“In recent decades, Australian governments have relied heavily on drug law enforcement (while providing more limited funding for health and social responses), yet the drug market has continued to expand.
Around the world, drug production has increased, drug consumption has increased, the number of new kinds of drugs has increased, drugs are readily available, drug prices have decreased and the purity of street drugs has increased.
It’s time the community and its leaders had the courage to look at this issue with fresh eyes.”Mick Palmer, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner
In Australia, government spending on law enforcement, drug treatment and harm reduction to address illicit drugs has reflected the same skewed budget allocation commitment toward the ‘war on drugs’ as that of the US. Total spending was approximately $1.7 billion in 2009/10, with two thirds of this spent on law enforcement. Treatment received about a fifth, prevention one tenth and harm reduction 2% (NDRI, 2010).
The relatively small allocation of funding on drug prevention is an area that needs to be questioned. Prevention programs that have been shown to be effective across a range of measures consistently draw only scant attention from governments in terms of funding priorities.
There has been, however, a movement slowly building over the past decade questioning the cost-effectiveness of policies that commit billions of dollars toward enforcement of prohibition policies yet have little or no impact in drug availability.
Further questions are also being asked about a system that continues to pit police against drug consumers and sees ever more people who use drugs incarcerated in many parts of the world.
Questions about the ‘war on drugs’ are being asked by many people, not only about concerns about the amount public money being spent waging this war, but also about the many unanticipated consequences.
The ‘Counting the Cost’ Report produced by Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the UK states:
“Despite increased resources directed to supply-side enforcement, evidence suggests that drug prices, while remaining far higher than legal commodities, have decreased over the past three decades. From 1990 to 2005, for instance, the wholesale price of heroin fell by 77 percent in Europe and 71 percent in the US.”
Strict prohibition creates a favourable climate for criminal elements and has many associated negative impacts :
- an illicit market usually means high prices and profit margins, encouraging criminal involvement
- the drug trade provides funds for associated criminal activity such as weapons dealing, people trafficking and increased political instabilit
- corrupts law enforcement and other government officials
- is violent and risks the safety of the broader community
- threatens public health and spreads disease and death
- denies access for legitimate medical and therapeutic use of drugs e.g. cannabis, ecstasy, ketamine
- undermines development and security, fuels conflict
- only those willing to break the law may access the market – leads to criminal convictions which impact on employment, restricts travel and other opportunities
- is uneconomical – trillions of dollars poured into criminal justice system incarcerating millions of drug users world-wide
- promotes stigma, discrimination and denial of human rights
- ‘legitimizes’ criminal networks by providing funds to invest in mainstream businesses
- displacement effect – riskier drugs in riskier settings.
Closer to home, the significant impact of the war on drugs on public resources is evident when you look at the court system.
In Australia, ABS data confirms the tough law and order policies implemented by governments toward drug offences. The Australian Crime Commission report ‘Australian Crime Commission (ACC) Illicit Drug Data Report 2012–13’ (ACC, 2014) noted that:
“….there were a record number of national illicit drug seizures and arrests reported in 2012–13. A record 86,918 national illicit drug seizures were reported in 2012–13, a 66.4 per cent increase on the 52,231 seizures reported in 2003–04. While the weight of illicit drugs seized nationally decreased from the record 23.8 tonnes seized in 2011–12, the 19.6 tonnes seized this reporting period is the second highest on record and a 75 per cent increase on the weight of illicit drugs seized in 2003–04. The number of national illicit drug arrests has increased 27.2 per cent over the last decade, from 80,020 in 2003–04 to a record 101,749 in 2012–13.”