Two internationally renowned drug law reform advocates, Ethan Nadelmann and Alex Wodak, pitched a public case at the National Press Club last week for the liberalisation of Australia's drug laws.
Nadelmann is the head of the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, and has public lectures scheduled in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra in the next two weeks. Wodak is director of the St Vincent's Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service in Sydney, and has campaigned for Australian drug law reform since the 1980s.
Nadelmann and Wodak argue that the war on drugs has failed, and that we need leadership in Australia to promote a drug policy approach based on science, health and human rights rather than criminalisation. They want the Australian government to emphasise regulatory approaches with health rather than law enforcement outcomes in mind. They propose a model of government taxation and regulation of illicit drugs, which could include prescription of some substances (for example medical marijuana), or the retail sale of other substances in pure forms.
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I can see two major barriers in Australia to the drug law reform initiatives Nadelmann and Wodak argue for.
One is the paradox in this country of community disapproval of drugs despite widespread use. To illustrate this, take the following test.
First, make a list of all the drugs and other psychoactive substances you have ever used, including legal "drugs" such as alcohol. tobacco and prescribed and over-the-counter medications. Also list any illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine or ecstasy.
You should also count other "psychoactive substances" such as caffeine (from coffee to energy drinks and bars) and any herbal preparations that affect your mood, be it calming or energising.
Second, ask yourself, do you support reduced penalties for the sale or supply of illicit drugs? Do you approve of the regular use of alcohol and other drugs by adults?
I believe most of you will have listed somewhere between five to 10 drugs and psychoactive substances, and answered "no" to the above questions.
Australia's use of alcohol, drugs, and other psychoactive substances is among the highest globally. The most recent figures from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey show that in 2007 nearly 45 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 had ever used tobacco, 90 per cent alcohol and 38 per cent any illicit drug (of which cannabis was most common). Many experts accept that these figures are likely to be underestimates.
Privately, we are a nation of drunks, junkies and pill-poppers, and we always have been. Publicly, however, the dominant community attitude on drugs in Australia is disapproval and fear, and this feeling seems to be growing. Again, the 2007 survey shows that community support for stricter policies on alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs has increased in the past decade, and community approval or acceptance of regular drug use of all kinds is dropping.
Another barrier to drug policy reform in Australia is the political environment in which the Gillard minority government finds itself.
On paper, the Gillard administration looks a good bet for drug policy reform. The Greens have committed publicly to progressive drug policies (including medically prescribed cannabis), and one of the independents, Robert Oakeshott, supports injecting rooms. Federal Labor has made a big financial and political commitment to wider health system reforms.
In reality, it seems most likely that other issues such as a carbon price and independents' regional goals will dominate the Gillard government's agenda.
And this is a pity, as since the Hawke Labor government, Australia has been a world leader in developing harm minimisation strategies in the drug policy area. Initiatives such as methadone maintenance, needle and syringe programs, drug courts, peer education, cannabis expiation schemes, and the Sydney supervised injecting centre trial have helped to mitigate the health and social cost of drug misbuse. But Nadelmann says that Australia's drug policy progress has stalled in recent times.
Although the Labor government has released the draft National Drug Strategy 2010-15 for public comment, it was overdue and public submissions will close on December 10. It is also telling that the website of the government's main advisory body on drugs policy, the Australian National Council on Drugs, still contains Kevin Rudd's message to the community.
Nadelmann suggests that looking to the evidence in favour of health-based drug policy initiatives will get Australia back on track. He also says it is time to break the taboo on open and honest debate and dialogue on drugs.
The idea of open and honest debate makes sense. Dialogue about the possibilities for reform in public policy is a hallmark of a progressive society, and Australia certainly considers itself that.
However, to achieve openness and honesty in the Australian drug debate would require us to acknowledge that we are a nation of drug users. We would also have to accept that in civilised societies such as ours it makes no moral sense to distinguish between the worth of illegal and legal drug users in terms of how we treat such people.
Regrettably, I suspect these truths are simply too confronting for most to accept.
Craig Fry is Associate Professor of health ethics, specialising in alcohol and drugs, at the University of Melbourne Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.
November 30, 2010
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