Monday, 2 August 2010

Are We Really That Dumb?

Is the "War on Drugs" about to breath it’s last breath? Maybe you have noticed the increasing number of editorials on why the "War on Drugs" has failed and the growing opinion that drug policies around the world are just not doing what they promised. Every day now there are editorials damning global drug policies and this would have seemed radical only a few years ago. And they are appearing in well respected and popular media outlets, not just the usual lefty publications. The Australian published the article, New Thinking Needed For War On Drugs just a few weeks ago.

Apart from editorials and opinion pieces, the general news also highlights the failure of how we deal with the drug issue. I argue that if it were any other issue there would be enough bad press to wreak havoc on a government who makes these policies. How many news items have to be printed to get the government into gear and start taking notice of the carnage caused by their own decisions? Are we really that stupid, that we continue with such tragic policies that have never once succeeded?

Just last month, an $84 million cocaine haul was reported in Australia. $84 million dollars worth of cocaine is a lot of drugs in anyone’s terms but surprisingly it was only the 5th largest cocaine haul in our history. Most people I quizzed about it were not even aware of this bust or were blasé about it. With possible connections to Mexican drug lords and other international players, an $84 million dollar cocaine haul should be big news but the story is simply lost in the multitude of drug related crimes. This should be ramming home the message that illicit drug supply is unlimited and no amount of policing will make any difference in the long run. But no, we repeat the same old, failed strategy. Some leaders even use our unsuccessful drug policy as a reason to vote for them. What’s up with that?

So why do we continue to spend billions of dollars trying to stop the unstoppable? Why hasn’t the opposition, the police or the media declared this strategy a failure and a waste of tax payer’s money? Incredibly, the Australian Federal Police admit that less than 10-15% of all illicit drugs imported into Australia are seized. That means, for each billion dollars worth we stop each year, 10 times that amount or $10 billion dollars worth evades our border security and makes it’s way onto the street. But, have you ever heard the Australian Federal Police or incumbent government declare anything but success?

And, what is success? How do the police and the government measure their success when tackling illicit drugs? Is their definition of success the same as those who work in drug and alcohol treatment? Last month, an article in the West Australian declared, WA Ecstasy Is Cocktail Of Chemicals. In other words, the bulk of ecstasy no longer consists of a relatively safe drug like MDMA but instead is filled with all sorts of dangerous chemicals and fillers. The police were very concerned about these new ingredients citing side effects such as paranoia, schizophrenia, diarrhoea, vomiting, headaches and even death. Ironically, this is what they said about MDMA not too long ago. 

The global crackdown on MDMA and it’s precursors has been hailed a success by law enforcement groups around the world but the reality of their strategy is anything but “successful”. Out of the 60 plus deaths in Australia from ecstasy since 2002, only 1 in 10 is directly a result of MDMA. The bulk of deaths were from the filler products in the pills that were sold off as MDMA. Did the police and the government know that MDMA was not as dangerous as the filler products could be? 

Mixed in with the usual, ultra hyped up stories about the ecstasy scourge are dozens of scientifically sound articles debunking the hysteria surrounding MDMA. Did they overlook that famous television documentary, Ecstasy Rising or the David Nutt scandal where the head of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said that taking ecstasy was as safe as riding a horse? 

The media regularly exposes the dangerous contaminants in street drugs. Even cocaine doesn’t escape the reports of being cut with animal de-worming agents or dental anaesthetic. But one often overlooked problem is the current state of methamphetamines. The decision to crack down on precursors created the need for backyard drug labs to buy cold and flu tablets containing the active ingredient, pseudoephedrine. This in turn, lead to another crack down on cold and flu tablets and forced consumers to buy inferior products with an alternative active ingredient. If you want real medication with pseudoephedrine, it is now at the discretion of your pharmacist who will require your name and address which can be accessed by the Australian Federal Police. But this is a trivial matter compared to the new ice/meth hitting the streets. This new, heavily refined drug is commonly known as “shards” and according to street talk, magnifies the worst aspects of meth. Users are now faced with a harsher, more dangerous drug courtesy of our drug laws.  

You may be excused for thinking that most newspaper articles about drugs are biased towards punitive action. It probably goes a long way to explaining why so many politicians play the "Tough on Drugs" card so readily. But there’s an inherent problem with this - they accept trash media reports more readier than articles from the science community. The same goes for the general public. For example, why would anyone oppose safe injecting clinics when every article that supports them, is based on evidence and research? Why would the opinion of rabid right wingers be more important than the scientific findings? The public have a right to be stupid but politicians don’t. They are obliged to act on facts and evidence. 

I sometimes wonder how many people actually grasp the situation in Mexico at the moment? Has it really sunk in that the sale of easily produced products like cocaine, heroin and cannabis has managed to create organisations more powerful than some countries? How about the situation in the US where drug gangs fight it out with DEA agents in the streets using military weapons usually reserved for wars? These are the daily reminders that should have politicians and the police questioning our current strategies in the fight against drugs. Are they that dumb to think it will be different here in Australia? Even our TV entertainment reflects the carnage caused by ignorant policies. Yes, I’m talking about Underbelly, a show that exposes the deep relationship between drugs and police corruption, organised crime and copious levels of violence. There’s no escaping the damage caused by the outdated, misguided "War on Drugs".

Here is a snapshot of articles that maybe our decision makers should be reading:

We Will Never Win War On Drugs - The Sun (Scotland)
How Legalized Pot Could Hurt Mexico's Cartels - Newsweek
Drug Sentences Create Racial Caste System - Miami Herald
'Cocaine Nation' A Case For Legalization - NPR
Former Presidents Denounce Drug War Ahead of AIDS Meet - Inter Press Service
Drug Users Must Be Decriminalized Along With Scale-Up Of Combination Treatment - PhysOrg
'Decriminalise Personal Drug Use', Suggests Chairman Of The Bar Council - The Telegraph
Drug Control Policy Director Talks Prevention - NPR
Experts Urge Reform Of Global Drug Policy - The Associated Press
Marijuana Should Be Taxed And Regulated -
Medical Matters : Debate Over Heroin Prescription Needs To Reopen - Irish Times
Feature: Drug War a Devastating Failure, Scientists and Researchers Say - DrugWar Chronicle
Ecstasy May Ease PTSD Symptoms - WebMD
On The Street, You Can See The Harm Caused By Drug Laws - Ottawa Citizen
Parents: End The War On Drugs – For Your Kids - California Progress Report

The "War on Drugs" is a colossal failure and supporting it blindly should no longer be tolerated. Any politician who throws around politically expedient lines about being "Tough on Drugs” needs to explain why. They need to be told it is no longer acceptable in 2010 to ignore the facts that they get presented with on a regular basis. It’s no longer acceptable to overlook the dozens of newspaper articles that are published every week. The evidence is in and it’s reported on everyday. Banging on about “sending the wrong message” or being "Tough on Drugs" just doesn’t cut it anymore. In fact, it is dumb.

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