Australia’s war on drugs needs to move over for decriminalisation, say experts

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A man rolls a cannabis cigarette during the Expo Weed event in Santiago, Chile, November 27, 2015. Reuters/Pablo Sanhueza

The legalisation of cannabis in Australia is pointless while all other drugs remain criminalised, a leading expert in drug policy believes.

“There’s absolutely no point in doing it just for cannabis and not doing it for everything else,” says Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), and a strong advocate for decriminalisation.

The Federal government had earlier in October revealed its plans to legalise the growing of cannabis for medical purposes by 2016. The announcement sparked a larger debate surrounding drug policy in Australia, including the benefits of decriminalising drugs.

Ritter believes that resistance to decriminalisation in Australia comes from a lack of understanding of what the term actually involves.

“The thinking is that more people will use drugs, and so more people will be harmed . . . There’s no evidence to support that.”

Like many other advocates for drug policy reform, Ritter cites the apparent success of decriminalisation in Portugal as an exemplary case study.

The country decriminalised drug possession in 2001 in favour of a system that instead placed emphasis on prevention and harm reduction services.

According to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, rates of overall drug use in Portuguese adults aged 15 to 64 significantly decreased between 2001 and 2012. There has also been a reduction in drug use by young adults aged 15 to 24, the demographic most at risk of starting to use drugs for the first time.

Portugal has also seen a substantial decrease in both the number of deaths caused by illicit drug use and in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

However, experts point out that this decline is likely due in large part to the expansion of harm reduction and treatment measures that accompanied Portugal’s decriminalisation policy from 2001 onwards.

John Rogerson, CEO of the Australian Drug Foundation, says these measures would also be necessary if decriminalisation is to succeed here.

“It’s not just about decriminalisation. In Portugal they expanded the welfare system, and all of those things need to be brought into the mix as well, and that’s the challenge in this country.”

In addition to the evident success of decriminalisation in Portugal, the failure of prohibition in Australia is another reason to consider policy reform, says Ritter, especially considering the high costs of prohibition policy.

In a report from the Drug Policy Modeling Program, she notes that the Federal government spent roughly 66 percent of its $1.7 billion ‘war on drugs’ budget on law enforcement in 2010.

In contrast, the combined expenditure on prevention, harm reduction and treatment made up only 32.6 percent of the budget.

Ritter says law enforcement has proven ineffective in reducing drug use in Australia, and that moving the majority of enforcement funding into prevention and treatment programs would be much more valuable.

“Decriminalisation has the potential to reduce the burden on police and the criminal justice system,” she said.

In addition to this immense government expenditure, Dr. Stephen Bright of the Curtin University School of Psychology says prohibition has also resulted in the creation of many new and dangerous synthetic substances.

“People have just worked out ways of making drugs that circumvent these laws,” he said. “We’re on this merry-go-round that just gets faster and faster...And the new drugs are often worse than the old ones.”

Rogerson agrees that the supposed ‘war on drugs’ has failed to reduce substance abuse in Australia.

“The demand for drugs in this country is out of control...The price of drugs is getting cheaper, not dearer, which tells you that there’s more drugs available. Even the police are telling us that it’s not working.”

Despite arguments from experts against prohibition, the decriminalisation of drugs is currently not being seriously considered by the Australian government.

“People see [drug use] as a moral issue,” says Bright. “What we have is a media-driven policy, rather than an evidence-based policy.

“People are going to keep using drugs. The end game should be about reducing harm, not reducing use.”

“It’s easier to think of [drug users] as criminals,” Ritter adds, “So politicians want to be seen as tough; tough on crime, tough on drugs. It’s hard for them to support this stuff because they’re seen as permissive.”

Rogerson agrees that Australians are “very conservative” on the issue of drugs.

“Any time we have a conversation about this, it’s the front page. [Politicians] look like lunatics for even suggesting it, so they don’t talk about it. We have to enable our political leaders to have an honest conversation about this issue.”

Despite current resistance to decriminalisation in Australia, Ritter is confident that the country may attempt to adopt the policy in the future.

“We’ve seen the evidence, we know it works, but we’re not driving forward,” says Ritter. “We have to invest in what’s best for Australia and what’s best for society. Australia can be a leader in this area.”

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