Drug war lost

EVERY day we are wounded in what politicians and police like to call the war on drugs. We wince when we see the drug-crazed mother with children we know have little chance of a rewarding life and we harden a little. Isn’t an overdose the best option? There may be votes in getting junkies off the street but there will be fewer votes in preserving their life.

Every day and every night everyone of us is at risk of becoming a serious casualty of the war, be it a burgled home or the more traumatising street assault or armed robbery. In many urban areas most people have been such a casualty. Many families have paid a devastating price, the descent into hopeless addiction and, often, the death of a family member.

For many years the ugliness has been not in the war but in the defeat. We lost the war on illicit drugs years ago, and not for one day has Australia’s finest stopped the flow of heroin or any other illicit drug into Australia or from plantation or lab within Australia to the street market. Not for one hour.

So what next? There will be no next until we admit that the war has been lost, and this week a number of impressive Australians came together to do just that. Among them are former NSW premier Bob Carr (joined the group before he became foreign minister), former federal health ministers Michael Wooldridge and Peter Baume, former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, former Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop, former Northern Territory chief minister Kate Carnell and drug addiction expert Alex Wodak.

They feature in a report prepared for the think tank Australia21, a report with the ungainly title ‘‘The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen’’. Australia21 is advocating a national rethink rather than specific policy. It does, however, make a series of points. Prohibition, it says, puts the drug industry in the hands of criminals and exposes young people, police and politicians to criminal influence, and the huge profits in the industry allow the criminals to be much better resourced than police and customs. The harms that flow from prohibition include many deaths, property crime, prisons and courts clogged by lawbreakers referred to in the report as victims of the drugs industry, and ‘‘a complete lack of control of the dosage and toxicity of the drugs young people are consuming’’. After decades of prohibition illicit drugs are readily available on our streets and in our prisons, and the public money spent to fail ‘‘would be better directed to managing drug use as a health and social issue as we do with nicotine and alcohol’’.

I believe the prospect of heroin, amphetamines and other illicit drugs being sold openly by pharmacists will be too much for most Australians, but the fact is that these drugs are now sold more or less openly by people enslaved by their addiction to criminals. The controlled sale has the advantage of eradicating or greatly reducing the criminal income and our contribution to it as victims of crime. A less confronting scenario is that the state provide free drugs to addicts, and those who’d object to paying to sate a drug user’s addiction should be reminded that they do now as, again, victims of crime. The uncontaminated drugs that would be available in both situations would allow addicts to recover much of their health and quality of life.

But one step at a time. First we must admit defeat. Are you ready to admit defeat in the war on drugs? What next, then?

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