• The market has spoken: a great many Australians enjoy using drugs, and will continue to do so regardless of the law. (AAP)Source: AAP
Lots of Australians enjoy using illicit drugs, and will continue to do so regardless of the law. It’s time for an honest discussion about drug reform. We’re sacrificing people’s lives.
By
Amy Corderoy

1 Mar 2016 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 1 Mar 2016 - 12:40 PM

We're at a turning point in the unwinnable and bloody war against drugs. It’s becoming clear to anyone who cares to look that our attempts to stop people using illicit drugs have so far been futile and damaging.

Even the police agree: the head of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer, told Four Corners recently our efforts at policing drugs were "counterproductive" and a "huge waste of resources" while the Australian Crime Commission said drug busts were making little dent in the huge supply of drugs flowing into the country.

But will we be able to move towards an evidence-based drugs policy while conservative voices continue to politicise the issue, spreading misinformation and making honest discussions about reform look evil?

Even the ‘freedom loving’ arm of the right stays frustratingly silent.

It seems embarrassingly insignificant when compared to the very real and grave impingements on freedom caused by our current drug laws.

How often do we hear Australia's nanny-state obsessives furious about the introduction of plain packaging on tobacco, or restrictions on alcohol sales? But how much of an impingement on our freedoms are plain-packed cigarettes?

What kind of loss is it to no longer have the freedom to choose what colour propaganda our drug of choice is wrapped in?

It seems embarrassingly insignificant when compared to the very real and grave impingements on freedom caused by our current drug laws.

During big events like Mardi Gras and New Years' Eve it's likely thousands of people will attend events where they will take a drug they hope is MDMA, or ‘ecstasy’, both which might be very easy to obtain.

Of course, they can’t know whether their comparatively harmless MDMA pills have been replaced by some potentially deadly alternative because the illicit market has no quality guarantees for the consumer, the way a legal and freer market would.

Then, in order to use their drug of choice, many will take it in the most dangerous way possible: all at once, to avoid police sniffer dogs. These two factors have likely already been responsible for deaths this summer. During the 2013 Mardi Gras season, police operations resulted in an unprecedented number of complaints from people who felt scared, bullied and harassed.

In some Australian states, it's now illegal to be a drug user who also happens to drive a car.

An arresting truth

If we’re not killing our young people with our drug laws, we’re ruining their lives by forcing them into the criminal justice system.

And now many Australian states, such as NSW, have rolled out so-called "drug-driving" laws, under which people are deemed to be breaking the law simply by being a drug user who also happens to drive a car.

These sometimes-unreliable tests do not look for impairment, which is a different, entirely justifiable driving offence. Rather, they look for traces of drugs in your system, so small there is no evidence they would ever have an effect on your driving. Even the police won’t say they do.

Yet where are the outraged howls about the nanny state? All we hear is an embarrassing, hypocritical silence from those who purport to care about freedom.

Why is the freedom to choose the colour of your cigarette pack more important than the freedom to not die at a dance party, or to keep your licence when there is no evidence you have ever put another person at risk on the road?

If we’re not killing our young people with our drug laws, we’re ruining their lives by forcing them into the criminal justice system.

It’s certainly nothing to do with the drug itself. Tobacco is possibly the most pernicious of all the drugs. It kills at least one in two of its regular users, possibly more. It’s linked to a laundry-list of illnesses, too long to name here.

The likelihood of death after using pure MDMA not combined with other drugs is vanishingly rare, comparatively. As UK drug expert David Nutt pointed out, it is as safe to use ecstasy as it is to ride horses.

Our current approach is certainly not the fiscally responsible position. We know Australians are spending more than $7 billion a year buying illicit drugs. At the same time we are wasting $1.1 billion on ineffective law enforcement. The market has spoken: a great many Australians enjoy using drugs, and will continue to do so regardless of the law.

During big events like Mardi Gras and New Years' Eve it's likely thousands of people will take MDMA or ecstasy, both which they might find very easy to obtain.

Political change required

Internationally, the tide is turning. High-profile business leaders such as Richard Branson are fighting to change the laws, global agencies such as the UNODC are fighting battles internally to speak the truth publicly: the war has failed and it is ruining people’s lives.

But in order for fair, evidence-based policy to be implemented in Australia, we need leadership from both sides of the political divide – and more than ever before we need the conservative side of politics to stand up for what is a conservative position at its core: less government control, less wasted money, and more respect for individual choice.

Richard Cooke argued in The Monthly recently that this kind of call is a waste of time, because conservatives want drugs to remain as dangerous as possible because they want to punish users for behaving badly.

But what kind of moral position is it to hold that is it worth sacrificing people’s lives, their livelihoods and futures, as a punishment, or just to discourage some other people from using drugs? Even the most ardent utilitarian should baulk at that swap.

We need Australia's conservative commenariat and politicians to prove him wrong, and end their hypocritical silence before more young lives are lost.

This weekend a group of doctors lawyers and scientists from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and advocacy group Unharm said they were not willing to wait any longer for politicians to catch up – they were going to begin their own trial of pill testing at music festivals.

The response from NSW politicians? To threaten them with mass arrests.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @AmyCorderoy.

 

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