MARKETS have an inexorable logic of their own. Where there is a demand for a product or service, that demand will somehow be met. Any public policy that tries to change people's behaviour in defiance of market forces, which reflect widely held values, is going to struggle. One of the best illustrations of policy failure in such circumstances is the period in US history known as the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, when the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors was outlawed. ''The Noble Experiment'' failed as an attempt to eliminate the social harm caused by alcohol because it was widely defied. Criminal enterprise ensured so-called speakeasy clubs flourished. Today, as The Age reports, a new generation of clubbers and music fans is defying the current legal prohibitions on illicit drugs such as ecstasy, thereby sustaining a huge criminal trade.
The policy challenge is that young Australians simply do not share the attitude of older generations to such drugs and regard them as a cheap and readily available alternative to alcohol. Why, then, would a prohibition on drugs be any more effective than a prohibition on alcohol once a mass demand exists?
Ironically, part of the demand arises from efforts to tackle alcohol abuse and the antisocial behaviour that flows from binge drinking, particularly among young adults. A market is at work in which policy intervention has had unintended consequences. Federal and state governments responded to public alarm at binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence by raising taxes on youth-oriented alcopops drinks and tightening up liquor licensing rules. Venues such as nightclubs that sell alcohol and operate as music venues have experienced huge increases in licensing and security costs. At the same time, changes in another market, recorded music, have forced performers to recoup some of the lost income from plummeting CD sales by increasing the licensing fees that venues pay to play their music.
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These costs are passed on to patrons. Entry charges to venues have increased, as have the prices of drinks. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average price of a slab of full-strength beer has increased by 15 per cent in five years, but the average price at the bar is up 23 per cent. A nip of scotch costs 25 per cent more.
Meanwhile, the latest report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre states: ''In most jurisdictions (exception of the NT), the price of ecstasy has steadily declined across time.'' The report, Australian Trends in Ecstasy and Related Drug Markets 2010, also makes a telling finding about the inability of police to restrict the flow of the drug from suppliers to users. ''The vast majority reported ecstasy to be easy (45 per cent) or very easy (43 per cent) to obtain and few participants across jurisdictions reported ecstasy to be difficult to obtain.''
About half reported that the last time they used ecstasy was in a nightclub. Ecstasy users say taking a couple of pills is cheaper than buying drinks all night. Some clubs' alcohol sales have taken a hit from the phenomenon known as ''switching''; one reported a 30 per cent fall. In the study, the four most commonly endorsed reasons for deciding to use ecstasy at an event were ''to feel great'', for the ''high/rush/buzz'', ''to be able to dance all night'' and to ''enhance the appreciation of the music''. The illegal nature of such drugs is simply not a factor in users' decision making.
The danger as suppliers struggle to meet demand for an illicit product is that they try to make their stock go further by adding other substances. The result is pills of unpredictable but declining purity, which increases the risks of serious adverse effects for users. Venue operators and police are encountering increasing numbers of people engaging in dangerous behaviour while appearing to be drug-affected. Despite the risks, the message from parents, schools and authorities of ''don't do drugs'' doesn't appear to be working.
This does not mean that society must surrender to the alternative of condoning illicit drug use. It does, however, require us as a community to take a deep breath, take stock of the profound gap in generational attitudes and develop policies and strategies that minimise the risks of harm to which young people are exposing themselves. They are hardly the first generation to do so - although their tastes in music might have changed. A purely censorious message didn't work in the past and it won't work now.
A new, better informed approach is needed to engage young people and at least get them to consider and minimise the risks of their drug use, just as the broader community is educated to avoid excessive alcohol consumption. In both cases, powerful market forces are at work. All that authorities can realistically hope to achieve is to moderate the harmful effects.
The shock of the now, but what about wow?
IN broad terms, and to appropriate the title of one its shows, the 2010 Melbourne Festival has come, been and gone. This year's festival, which closes tonight, has, in common with its 24 predecessors, brought to town over a concentrated period a combination of the weird and wonderful, local and imported, and crowd-pleasers and the more debatable. That is, after all, the prime purpose of any festival: to feature the risky and the out of the ordinary and, in the process, expand the worlds of the performers and enhance the minds of the audiences.
Yet, the Melbourne Festival is also a cumulative thing, its light having been refracted in various ways through the successive prisms of its 10 directors - they range from its founder, Gian Carlo Menotti, through such experienced hands as John Truscott, Leo Schofield, Clifford Hocking and Robyn Archer. This year, director Brett Sheehy devised a program he described as ''best characterised as 'works of art' created by some of the finest creative minds of our time''. This was emphasised in a number of attractions that blurred cultural boundaries: for example, Toneelgroep Amsterdam's Opening Night, a theatrical adaptation of John Cassavetes's 1977 film, or David Chesworth's Richter/Meinhof-Opera, inspired by art and terrorism. But, while such combinations might have said something new, was there perhaps a preponderance of such events at the expense of things that could have been original and memorable? Where was the definitive instant hit, the so-called ''Wow!'' factor that etched into the mind, say, Ken Russell's explosive production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1986) or Stephen Page's mythic and marvellous melding of his Bangarra Dance Theatre with the Australian Ballet in Rites (1997)?
Sheehy might have fulfilled his brief to be diverse, and attracted audiences to match, but this, the second of his four festivals, was short of a showstopper.
October 23, 2010
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