Excellent article from Chris Middendorp. It really doesn't get better than this.
Drug Prohibition Doesn't Work - So What Do We Do Next?
By Chris Middendorp
Australia needs to join the growing worldwide debate on new policies.
IT'S not Suzanne's fault that she became addicted to heroin at 16. For a while it numbed the emotional pain of the abuse she suffered as a ward of the state. Four years later, she uses heroin three times a day just to feel normal. She never knows how strong it will be and has overdosed six times in the past year. Without the first aid of ambulance officers, Suzanne would be dead - like four of her friends who died from overdoses in the past year.
Suzanne's habit costs more than $1000 a week. She engages in street sex work - the only way she has to raise that kind of money. Suzanne is sometimes beaten by the men who pay her for sex. She needs to spend every dollar she can generate on maintaining her heroin addiction. She sleeps on the streets and often goes hungry. Last winter, pneumonia nearly finished her off. She has criminal records for possession and street prostitution. She can't get a conventional job.
For many Australian drug users, the criminalisation of drugs continues to create significant misery. The more radical drug policy reformers would argue that if Suzanne could pick up a regulated dose of heroin from a chemist for $5 a day (as addicts can methadone), she could establish a healthy and safe life. In other words, her regrettable situation is largely caused by drug laws, not by the heroin itself.
It's a fair point. While current drug laws have not stopped people using drugs, they have produced two dreadful by-products. They have spawned a ruthless black market generating billions of dollars, and have turned users, often teenagers, into criminals.
Despite legal prohibition, the number of people who use illicit drugs is greater now than ever. Taking as an example marijuana, which accounts for two-thirds of all drug arrests, more than 2 million Australians will smoke this substance over the next year.
But there are indications that times may be changing. Barack Obama's Administration is the first to stop using the ''war on drugs'' rhetoric that Richard Nixon initiated when he declared the conflict 40 years ago. Obama has even said publicly that the war has been an "utter failure". This is momentous. Until recently, America had been a hectoring advocate of drug policies involving prohibition and zero tolerance - with Australia marching to the beat of their drum. In 1988, the US Congress actually passed laws declaring that the US would be drug-free by 1995. Billions of dollars have been wasted on policing, yet drugs remain a central fact of American life.
In several Latin American countries and in mainland Europe, legislators have already brought about significant reforms in drug policy in recent times. This has not involved an open-slather legalisation of drugs, but the decriminalisation of personal possession and use. Most famously, in 2001 Portugal decriminalised all drugs - from heroin to cocaine - and, to many people's surprise, overall drug use actually fell.
In Switzerland, giving addicts free heroin in supervised clinics has been deemed a success, with begging, prostitution, homelessness and burglary all dropping dramatically. A national referendum in 2008 voted overwhelmingly to retain the program, which began as a trial in 1994.
The focus of any drug debate should not be morals or the law; it should concentrate on the welfare of human beings. The common use of the term "junkie" helps us to maintain the belief that users of substances are in some way lesser beings. Part of the reason we've comfortably followed the prohibition path for so long has been mainstream culture's view of drug users as subhuman creatures who need redemption. What they really need is medical support and laws that make sense.
In Britain, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a respected drug reform group, has been working to dispel ignorance and prejudice. Believing that the time for action is now, the group recently published After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation. The document is generating worldwide support from doctors, lawmakers and commentators. It pivots on the question that if we can accept that prohibition does not work, what do we do next? How we answer this is vital.
After the War harnesses a great deal of intellectual firepower to argue the case for drug reform and social transformation. It examines how decriminalisation might work with strict regulations for vendors, outlets and venues where drugs could be used. It will upset the orthodoxy and exhilarate reformers.
The most common argument in favour of maintaining a ''war on drugs'' is that drugs are harmful. But we know that if we had to rate drugs by the harm they actually did, then alcohol and cigarettes would go to the top of the list. Regulation and education are the key. It is always worth recalling that when America made alcohol illegal through prohibition in 1919, they created powerful crime figures such as Al Capone, and people started drinking seriously dangerous moonshine, more potent than wine or beer.
Many people don't think seriously about drug use until a family member becomes affected. The law and order populism of the ''war on drugs'' has been allowed to develop precisely because free debate and careful thinking has been sidelined. Let's hope those days are numbered.
Chris Middendorp is a community worker and writer.