Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, rightly remarked that “Drugs have destroyed many lives but wrongheaded government policies have destroyed many more.” His observations, made over a decade ago, hold immense truth and wisdom for the current Australian government. The drug policies of Australia are dictated by the National Drug Strategy, and presently, Australia is operating on a redundant and outdated one. The last National Drug Strategy was valid up to 2016 and therefore, Australia has no concrete policy in implementation as of now. Its replacement National Drug Strategy for 2016-2025, is still only in draft. While all manner of conclusions could be drawn on why it has taken so long to develop a new strategy, it is a manifestly complex policy problem.
Australia’s drug policies have been traditionally dominated by practices of drug prohibition. Even though on paper, the drug strategies have the sensible pillars of demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction, in practice, it usually comes down to seizures of illicit drugs and cracking down on drug suppliers. Although they usually work in the short term, the lack of farsightedness for years has contributed to a legacy of ineffective drug policies. According to a 2013 study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, almost two-thirds (64%) of the A$1.6bn spent by Australian governments in response to illicit drugs in 2009/10 was allocated to law enforcement, with 23% going to drug treatment, 9% to prevention and only 2% to harm reduction.
The debate between focusing on drug prohibition in the short run and bringing about a psychological and behavioural change in the long run has occupied the centre stage not just in Australia but the rest of the world as well. But drug prohibition seems to be a doomed policy now. In richer countries like Australia, drug prohibition has led to poor outcomes but in poorer countries like Colombia and Mexico, adoption of similar policies has eroded critical civic institutions and created powerful mafia groups that control society and polity. After years of National Drug Strategies aimed at seizures of illicit drugs, there has been little to no effect on the availability, price and purity of drugs.
After grappling with the heroin epidemic of the 1990’s, Australia is lurching in a difficult position again. With the recent release of the Wastewater Drug Monitoring Report, published by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), it has become evident that drug prohibition has failed miserably to counter drug abuse in the country. The ACIC program involves the analysis of wastewater from 45 treatment plants from across Australia. These samples are analysed to identify illicit and licit drug markers. With this data, the ACIC can, for the first time, provide an estimate of the overall quantity of illicit drugs being consumed in Australia. In 2016-17, despite the massive crackdown on suppliers, Australians managed to consume an estimated 8,387 kilograms of methamphetamine. In the same duration, the Australian Federal Police seized nearly 3,354 kilograms of the drug. Similarly, Australians used 1,280 kilograms of MDMA and 3,075 kilograms of cocaine, even though the AFP has seized more than those quantities of these drugs respectively.
Essentially, over-production and over-supply of these drugs is crushing the logic that these policies work. Crackdown and seizures are expected to reduce supply and raise prices, thus, making drugs unavailable to the market. But it seems that as drug rackets are busted and dealers arrested, more spring up again and the supply remains unaffected, at the end. That is why a reform in Australia’s drug policy is long overdue. The policy should begin working on its own three pillars first: demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction. Where the policy truly fails is the demand reduction. There should be greater focus on training the Australian community, specifically the more vulnerable adolescents regarding the hazards of drug use. The threshold step will be redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than only a law enforcement battle. Physical infrastructure in terms of medical and healthcare facilities and social infrastructure in terms of support systems are necessary to resolve this crisis. People struggling with a severe drug problem often need assistance with education, training and employment to encourage their social reintegration.
For supply reduction, the government already has various drug prohibition strategies in place. In addition to this, segments of the drug market can be individually regulated as well. Needle-syringe programs, medically supervised injecting centres and methadone treatment are examples of steps that could be contemplated. Some organisations are also suggesting the legalisation of certain drugs such as cannabis, following the example of Canada and some American states. It is not unreasonable to suggest that drugs which are acceptable to the community, sufficiently attractive to people seeking a drug experience, and safe enough when provided in small quantities and low concentration ought to be legalised. Moreover, legalisation of some drugs can help in regulation of the drug market, whilst generating revenue through taxation.
In the words of Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Enforcement Foundation, “Drug prohibition took many decades to establish. A post prohibition drug policy will also take many decades to establish. Change will inevitably be slow and incremental. Mistakes will be made but continuing our failed and futile policy indefinitely because it works politically should not be an option.” Australia’s drug problem has been proving itself immune to the policies that have been adapted so far, and without a radical change, it would appear that the drug menace will not end. The need of the hour is for a new drug policy that gets its priorities straight, instead of being old wine in a new bottle that emphasises crackdowns and seizures.
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