On Wednesday scores of health experts, law reform campaigners, law enforcement officials and politicians attended a cross-party summit on drug law reform in Parliament House.
The resulting Canberra Declaration on Illicit Drugs summarised the clear consensus of those in the room, and many in the health sector more generally: the war on drugs has failed. Compelling evidence was presented demonstrating that tough, punitive laws against drugs didn’t only fail to deter use, but they actually increased harm.
The reframing of the drug law debate from a criminal issue to a health issue is an attractive proposition for those campaigning for more rational, evidence-based policy. But does a new approach that emphasises treatment instead of punishment risk falling into the same trap as our current paternalistic and morally driven policies?
The most frustrating aspect of any debate around drug law reform is how quickly calls to decriminalise or legalise drug use are conflated with promoting their use. For decades now the tabloid media in Australia, most notably The Daily Telegraph, and more recently the Courier-Mail, have responded to calls for decriminalisation with ludicrous front-page stories claiming campaigners want to sell drugs to children.
The war on drugs has failed.
NSW Premier Mike Baird has killed off attempts to introduce pill testing in the state, arguing it would “support illegal drug dealers” and promote drug use. Pill testing is the lowest hanging fruit of drug law reform. It would not even require changes to the law, just the provision of resource to provide on-site testing of drugs at music festivals in an attempt to stop the needless deaths of young partygoers. Pill testing was a measure explicitly supported by attendees at the Parliamentary drug summit.
There is absolutely no evidence that pill testing would increase drug use, but there is substantial evidence that it saves lives. Baird’s position seems predicated on the idea that if he just keeps telling people to stop taking drugs they magically will. It’s a fantasy. Humans have been consuming mind and body altering substances for thousands of years. The chances of drug use being stamped out because a conservative politician talked about them in a stern way are absolutely zero. Reform advocates are correct to argue that the current approach is antiquated, naïve and harmful. But I don’t think they should stop there.
There is absolutely no evidence that pill testing would increase drug use, but there is substantial evidence that it saves lives.
While drug law reform campaigners are absolutely right in arguing for changes to our drug policy, most of the loudest voices in the campaign still approach the issue from a paternalistic perspective. They still agree that drugs are bad and drug use should be discouraged, but through harm minimisation measures rather than criminal sanctions. When doctors publicly accept drug use will continue to occur, regardless of policy settings, you can detect their frustration – they understand the evidence and the reality, but they wish it wasn’t the case.
I think it’s time to take the debate one step further and start a conversation about whether there is actually any inherent problem with recreational drug use. The line between drugs that we allow people to consume (alcohol and tobacco) and the drugs that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and countless police hours trying to prohibit people from accessing (cannabis and MDMA, for example) are completely arbitrary.
It’s not about safety – in pure, regulated forms, drugs like cannabis and MDMA are safer than alcohol. Most of the safety issues stem from the fact that the market for these drugs is completely underground and controlled by criminal syndicates. A number of states in the US have fully legalised recreational cannabis use and the sky hasn’t fallen in.
Why is alcohol the only legal form of relaxing inhibition? Why not the high from cannabis or the buzz from MDMA?
It seems bizarre that we prevent festivalgoers from consuming drugs like cannabis and MDMA, when most of the money in holding large concerts is made from plying them with copious amounts of a more dangerous drug: alcohol.
There’s clearly no objective position prohibiting people from enjoying themselves in an altered state of mind, that’s exactly what alcohol does. But why is alcohol the only legal form of relaxing inhibition? Why not the high from cannabis or the buzz from MDMA?
Again, full legalisation does not need to equate to a promotion of use. Alcohol and tobacco are legal, but politicians and the police don’t run around telling everyone to use them. They’re relatively easy to access, but we still fund community campaigns warning of the dangers of addiction and overconsumption, as well as providing treatment services. Why would it be any different with recreational drugs?
I can understand why health professionals are desperate to reframe the drug debate by focusing on harm minimisation, particularly for “hard” drugs like ice and heroin. Our current policy settings are failing and letting down the most vulnerable members of our community. But an umbrella approach that seeks to treat these drugs in the same way as recreational substances like cannabis and MDMA lacks nuance. Partly this has to do with the background of the experts dominating the debate. They largely come from health and legal backgrounds and are unlikely to be recreational drug users themselves. As valuable as their experience is, it should be supplemented with the views of actual drug users.
The Parliamentary drug summit and ensuing Canberra Declaration showed more and more politicians and experts are willing to critically examine our existing approach to drugs. It was a building block in the long campaign for reform. But despite the calls for policy to be “evidenced based”, there was a definite lack of evidence regarding some of the paternalism on display. It’s time for a bigger discussion, one that involves drug users and breaks down the arbitrary distinction between the drugs society says we’re allowed to consume and the drugs that could see us thrown into jail.
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