Last weekend saw another series of overdoses, this time in Melbourne. Any governmental response needs to take into account policy recently introduced by the Greens that calls for an independent regulatory authority to assess the possibility of decriminalising and legalising illicit drugs. According to the United Nation’s 2014 World Drug Report, Australia has the highest proportion of recreational drug users in the world. This suggests that this country’s drug policy has been ineffective in reducing use or curbing demand, let alone protecting people from the harm that illicit drugs can cause.
For example, we are number one in the world when it comes to per capita use of ecstasy. While the government has paid lip service to ‘harm minimisation’, it has actively opposed the use of pill testing at concerts and festivals. Not only does pill testing help people to avoid consuming ecstasy laced with dangerous chemicals, it additionally appears to have an impact in shaping the black market. According to a report made by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, ‘Products identified as particularly dangerous that subsequently became the subject of warning campaigns were found to leave the market.’
Despite the evidence of pill testing providing safer outcomes for users, (current) NSW Premier Mike Baird has taken a more puritanical approach. When it comes to giving safety advice to punters, he has simply said, ‘Don’t do it. That is the best form of safety you can do. Don’t take the pills and you’ll be fine.’ This approach is eerily reminiscent of abstinence-only sex education. ‘Just don’t have sex. Abstinence is the safest approach. Don’t have sex and you’ll be fine.’ Both of these approaches take a moralistic stance over a practical one. The reality is that people have used psychoactive drugs to alter their consciousness for thousands of years across many different cultures and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. The question becomes, do we want to continue down the road of assigning moral blame and criminalising drug users or do we instead take steps to increase the safety of those who will inevitably use drugs?
Dr Steve Gannon of the Australian Medical Association has also come out as opposing the decriminalising or legalising of any illicit drugs. ‘We should not underestimate the harm that illicit drugs do everyday every day in our community,’ he has stated. A crucial aspect that Dr Gannon ignores is that harm can be significantly heightened through the very act of prohibition. Take for example the prohibition era of America in which alcohol was banned. Alcohol poisoning became more prevalent among drinkers due to two main reasons.
The first was that alcohol was being made in an unregulated, black market environment. There was no quality control or assurances of alcohol content when it came to black market booze. This doesn’t seem any different to today’s heroin market. Accidental overdoses can be attributed to people having absolutely no idea about the quality or purity of the heroin they are purchasing. The second reason why alcohol poisoning became more prevalent in the prohibition era was due to the black market turning its focus to making spirits and abandoning safer and less alcoholic drinks like beer in order to maximise their profits. Consider the statistics surrounding methamphetamine use in Australia. While the rates of use have remained the same, more users are consuming the highly concentrated form of methamphetamine known as ice. This suggests that drug prohibition has been ineffective in keeping people away from more concentrated and powerful drugs.
Gannon also claimed, ‘There’s an undeniable association between cannabis and mental illness.’ He is partially right, there is a link between cannabis use and those with mental illness. What Gannon leaves out is that there little to any evidence establishing a causal link between these two. Dr Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard psychiatrist who specialised in schizophrenia, has debunked the claim that cannabis use can lead to schizophrenia and/or psychosis. While the rates of cannabis use have increased in recent years, the number of people diagnosed with schizophrenia has remained at a consistent rate. If cannabis use was causing the development of the illness, surely we’d see a consistent rise alongside cannabis use?
The correlation of mentally ill people and cannabis may simply come down to cases of self-medication. In regards to schizophrenics, according to a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, some patients used cannabis for reasons such as, ‘clarity of voices, control of symptoms, to feel normal, perceived improvement in cognitive function, reduced psychological pain and increased energy’. There have also been several studies citing the alleviation of symptoms for mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD with cannabis use. This is not to suggest that cannabis is a cure-all for mental illness, but there is evidence to suggest its use can alleviate some suffering. Are we as a society really willing to pursue criminal charges against those who self-medicate with a substance like cannabis?
The attempts to link drug use with the mentally ill and other ‘outsider’ societal groups seems to be a consistent approach for those on the prohibitionist side of the drug argument. Former MP Bronwyn Bishop claimed late last year that large amounts of people on welfare were ‘rorting the system’ and that many were drug addicts. Despite having zero evidence for this claim, it makes sense in the context of prohibitionist policies. A former Richard Nixon administrator, John Ehrlichman, stated that the reason behind the war on drugs was to target groups the government was hostile towards. Ehrlichman explains:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Legalisation of cannabis appears to have been mostly positive in the case of the American state of Colorado. Teen use of cannabis has dropped, drug related crime has also decreased, and tax revenue as the result of cannabis sales have allowed for more funds for public schools. Portugal has had similar successes in regards to its decriminalisation program. Drug use, drug related deaths and rates of HIV infection among injecting drug users have all fallen. A key factor in this, though, was the transfer of drug-related problems from the department of justice to the department of health. This allowed problem addicts to find the help they needed instead of being needlessly criminalised.
Currently, Australia arrests roughly 100,000 citizens per year for drug possession alone. This costs a significant amount of money each year with no tangible results in regards to reducing harm or drug use. Resources are also wasted on programs that are shown to be ineffective, such as sniffer dogs. Back in 2006, the NSW Ombudsman reported that aside from occasionally finding small amounts of cannabis for personal use, the use of trained dogs was largely ineffective.
Richard Di Natale, the leader of the Australian Greens and a former doctor, has stated, ‘It’s time to recognise this is a health problem not a law and order one. We have to have an open, honest conversation about this and stop pretending we’re winning this war – we’re losing and losing fast.’
It’s time for Australia to abandon its puritanical approach to drug use and embrace healthcare and harm reduction over criminalisation and punishment. It’s time that we look at the evidence instead of moralising over drug use. Legalisation and decriminalisation of drugs will undoubtedly provide a new set of challenges for our society, but the simple truth is that the current approach is not working. It has not helped addicts, but rather deals with them in the most punitive ways possible. It criminalises those who use drugs as a means of alleviating pain and suffering. It demonises those who use drugs responsibly. It creates barriers to employment and social integration by slapping all these groups with criminal records. It’s time for a different approach.
Image: ‘Evil weed’ / flickr