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Author Topic: First lesson for new inquiry into ice: we've lost the war on drugs (Alex Wodak)  (Read 5556 times)

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On Sunday, assistant minister for health Senator Fiona Nash announced the establishment of a “reshaped” alcohol and drug advisory council, the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs (Anacad), with Kay Hull as the new chair.

It replaces the Australian National Council on Drugs, which reported to the prime minister, and will report to Nash - the minister responsible for drug and alcohol policy within the health ministry.

Nash also announced that Anacad will investigate ice and methamphetamine use in Australia.

The announcement included some positives. An emphasis on alcohol in Anacad is certainly welcome, but let’s see if that translates into support for evidence-based policies such as increased alcohol prices and less liberal availability. Professor Ted Wilkes, an expert on alcohol and drug problems among Indigenous Australians, has been appointed to Anacad, and that is also very welcome.

The downgrading of Anacad from an advisory body to the prime minister, however, and the appointment of Hull as chair are yet more examples of the Abbott government’s ham fisted approach to policy. Within two months of coming to office, Nash accepted advice from the alcohol industry to defund the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. Nash may have been headed for the barnacle machine were it not that she is one of the few women in the outer ministry and a National to boot.

Hull, a former National party MP, chaired a parliamentary inquiry in 2003 into substance abuse in Australian communities. The inquiry’s report, Road to Recovery, emphasised the importance of abstinence and was hostile to harm minimisation. Shortly before her appointment was announced, Hull criticised needle syringe programmes, methadone treatment and harm minimisation. This is all very well if we want Australia to have more HIV and hepatitis C infections, more crime and more drug overdose deaths. But who could want that?

Every dollar spent on needle syringe programmes is estimated to save $4 in health care costs and $27 overall. Every dollar spent on methadone treatment is estimated to save $7.

Five Labor and three Conservative governments adopted harm minimisation as Australia’s official national drug policy on 2 April 1985 and every Commonwealth, state and territory government since then has implemented harm minimisation programmes. This approach is now endorsed by all the major UN organisations responsible for drug policy.

Over the years, harm reduction has become the mainstream global drug policy. Some countries, including Russia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, still cannot abide harm reduction but the number of these countries is slowly shrinking.

In 1989, the all-party Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority concluded:

All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.

It wasn’t until 29 April 2014 – 25 years after that conclusion – that an Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, could finally admit that “[the war on drugs] is … not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose.”

On the same day, then commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Tony Negus and deputy commissioner of the Victorian Police Graham Ashton, noted that while there had been more drug arrests in Australia in 2013 than ever before, illicit drugs were still readily available.

Like almost every country in the world, for more than half a century Australia has relied heavily on law enforcement to control drugs. In that time, the drug market has continued to grow and has become, if anything, more dangerous. World street prices of heroin and cocaine fell more than 80% in the last quarter century.

Nor did a “war on drugs” approach keep our young people safe. The rate of heroin overdose deaths increased 55 times in Australia between 1964 and 1997. Property and violent crime became much more common than it had been half a century earlier. A significant part of that increase must be attributed to drug prohibition. Surely the 38 “Underbelly” murders of methamphetamine traffickers in Melbourne between 1998 and 2010 had more to do with the drug distribution system than the drugs themselves.

It’s important that we try to find better ways of responding to ice and methamphetamine. It’s also important that we ask ourselves why we ended up with ice in the first place.

In unregulated drug markets, more dangerous drugs tend to drive out less dangerous drugs. More dangerous drugs are often easier to transport undetected and are also more lucrative to sell – so decades of drug prohibition gave the world crack cocaine and ice.

For this and many other reasons, global drug prohibition is now reaching its use-by date. In the last four years, four US states have voted to tax and regulate cannabis, Uruguay’s parliament passed legislation to legalise cannabis and New Zealand (temporarily) began regulating selected new psychoactive substances. The most senior US government official permitted to discuss US drug policy, assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, recently called for more flexible interpretation of the three international drug treaties that underpin global drug prohibition. The times they are a changin’.

It’s time to switch from drug policies for a utopian world and search for policies that will work in the world we live in. Whether we like it or not, psychoactive drugs have been in demand in virtually all cultures in history. Dividing mood-altering drugs into legal and illegal categories a century ago made no scientific sense. The only benefits have been political.

Huey Long, the former Louisiana governor, is supposed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and they’re just the people I’m looking for.”

Let’s hope Anacad under Hull looks at the evidence and doesn’t just keep trying to fool us.

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