View attachment 17044 The greatest flaw in Australia's War on Drugs strategy is that it treats the possession and use of illicit substances like cocaine and cannabis as a criminal justice issue instead of it being seen for what it clearly is - a matter that is more appropriately dealt with by health professionals and not police and the law courts.
So when police, judges and magistrates and politicians bang on about the scourge of drugs in the community and how important cracking down on drug trafficking is, very few people are taking heed of the message. In fact, if anything, the illegality of substances like ecstasy and cocaine is what makes them so attractive to many people.
Similarly, it might also be said that using the criminal justice system and law enforcement tools to seek to influence underage, and excessive consumption of alcohol, is also a manifestation of a policy that is deeply flawed.
That Australian legislatures should move to treat drugs as a health issue by following the lead of countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic which have decriminalised possession and usage of most drugs and shifting resources into the health system accordingly, is borne out by a report released this week by the multi-government funded Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) which is run by the Sydney based National Alcohol and Drug Research Centre.
Media reporting on illicit drugs in Australia: Trends and impacts on youth attitudes to illicit drug use, examined media messages on illicit drugs over a five year period, from 2003-2008. It looked at how and to what extent news media messages on illicit drugs can influence demand and usage of drugs by young people. The research examined a healthy sample - almost 4,400 news items over that five year period.
What this study found is that most media articles about illicit drugs "depicted law enforcement or criminal justice action, and emphasized the legal problems associated with drug use." In other words, if you mess with illicit drugs you could end up in legal hot water is the dominant message portrayed through the media.
It is no small wonder that the criminal justice aspects of illicit drug usage are the dominant theme in media coverage of the issue. Police and governments spend literally millions of dollars each year pumping out propaganda about the latest drug raids netting yet another big haul of heroin or cocaine. In fact, these propaganda machines are an integral element of the War on Drugs strategy and have been so now for almost forty years.
But is the community getting bang for its buck? No, is the answer. The DPMP report says; "Youth are more likely to accept messages that are deemed credible (e.g. use evidence appropriately, cite expert sources and use a neutral tone). They are also more likely to accept messages that are deemed meaningful," the report notes. And it adds that the more effective messages in the media are not of the law and order type but health and social portrayals because they "tend to be more powerful because they depict a more persuasive risk message."
It is important to note that the DPMP report does not draw any conclusions about the current prohibitionist drugs policy settings but it is fair to say that its findings are consistent with those who argue that if we are serious about reducing illicit drug usage in our community we should focus exclusively, when it comes to users and non-commercial traffickers, on creating access for them in the health system and removing from our statute books all drug offences except for commercial trafficking.
There are also lessons that can be drawn from this research about how government tackles the problem of alcohol abuse. Media conferences with police chiefs promising zero tolerance and large scale arrests are much less effective than credible messaging through media outlets on the adverse health and social impact of excessive consumption of alcohol.
It is time Australia's political and law enforcement sectors started to base drugs policy on evidence rather than tired old clichés about crackdowns and jail time because when it comes to the target audience of these messages it seems to be a case of falling on deaf or sceptical ears.
1 October 2010
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