THE “war” on drugs will never be won. The war is a lost cause.
The approach of law enforcement, fines, punishment and imprisonment has not stopped the 2013-14 Australian illicit drug seizures from being the highest on record.
And while it is feasible to argue that increased policing has resulted in arrests being the highest on record, it is also possible to argue that more people than ever are using illicit drugs and that increased detection is relational to increased usage.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that Australians spend more than $7billion a year on illicit drugs, with more than half of that being directed at cannabis. That’s about $2billion more than Australians spend on fashion.
The Drug Policy Modelling program at the University of NSW released research in 2013 that calculated Australia spends about $1.1billion on enforcing drug laws, $361million for treatment and $36million for harm reduction.
It’s time to see if that $1.1billion spent on law enforcement would be better spent on education, treatment and harm reduction. Even if you only harbour contempt for drugs, drug suppliers and drug users, the economic and health arguments mounting a case to end the war on drugs surely warrant a royal commission into drug use in Australia. Yes, we had the Woodward Royal Commission into drug trafficking, but that was 35 years ago. It’s a different world now.
The economic forces that drive illicit drug supply and demand will always trump law enforcement. We can’t and won’t arrest our way out of drug consumption.
The economic forces ensure that prohibition can’t and won’t work. Can’t. Won’t. In the long term, economic forces always win. There’s too much money to be made from prohibition.
Last week’s publication of the Australian Crime Commission’s 2013-14 Illicit Drug Data report shows there were more than 93,000 illicit drug seizures, 27 tonnes of drugs seized and more than 110,000 arrests in 2013-14. All of those figures are the highest on record.
More than half the 110,000 arrests – 66,684 – were for cannabis. The total weight of cannabis border detections during the reporting period were the highest in the past decade. Heroin and other opioid arrests were the second highest reported in the past decade, while cocaine, amphetamine-type stimulants, steroid and hallucinogen arrests are all the highest on record.
Unsurprisingly, Australian Crime Commission chief executive Chris Dawson said criminals were at the centre of the Australian illicit drug market.
‘‘Motivated by greed and power, many of these groups and individuals use the illicit drug market as their primary income stream, profiting from the misery illicit drugs inflict on the nation,’’ he said.
No doubt. Just like drug suppliers always have done and always will do while prohibition sits at the top of the drug policy apex.
Recreational drug use is an ancient human activity. It will not be prevented by law enforcement or religious or moral objection. Law enforcement did not work in the United States during the 14-year war on alcohol. Prohibition didn’t work. It never does.
You couldn’t read two more widely differing approaches to illicit drugs than the ACC report and Johann Hari’s Chasing The Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs.
The Australian Crime Commission’s 2013-14 Illicit Drug Data report congratulates policing achievement as measured by seizure. It attributes its record results as a “testament to the vigilance and achievements of law enforcement in combating the illicit drug trade; it also demonstrates the continued prevalence of drugs in our society and the need for a collective approach’’.
The report is peppered with the discourse of war: “hardening Australia”, “threat” “vigilance” “combating” and “enforcement”.
Hari’s book examines the drug prohibition movement from before the 1930 beginning (heroin and cocaine were outlawed in 1914) of Henry Anslinger’s 32-year reign at the helm of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics. It is Hari’s contention that Anslinger harnessed some of Americans’ deepest fears, exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression, concerning racial minorities, intoxication and recreational sex.
By linking those anxieties to drugs, Anslinger was able to concoct a global war by convincing congress to force prohibition on other nations by connecting that outcome to the US aid budget.
Yet the place where the modern war on drugs began now sees numerous states decriminalising and legalising cannabis for both medical and recreational use. These states have started waving the white flag and seeing the recreational use of illicit drugs as best addressed through a regulatory framework that is not based on prohibition.
It is time to retreat, regroup and rethink how we should treat people who choose to use stimulants, narcotics and cannabinoids. Even crystal methamphetamine, the current pin-up nasty, needs a strategy that is not simply and ineffectively based around prohibition.
Prohibition is an abject failure.
Paul Scott is a lecturer in the School of Design, Communication and Information Technology at the University of Newcastle