The growing global debate over drug laws might be making news overseas but Australia seems to be stuck in a time warp led by the old "War on Drugs" mentality. With some countries actually decriminalising all drugs for personal use - including heroin, ice, LSD, cocaine, GHB etc. - Australia is yet to even have a public discussion about medical marijuana, yet any proposed reform to our antiquated drug laws.
It may seem odd to an outside observer that much of the Australian media and politicians remain quiet while several recent events have exposed how futile and dangerous our current drug policies are. Last week, ABC’s Four Corners program, delivered a harsh wake up call that we are fighting a losing battle against criminals in the illicit drug trade. And just last night, a Sydney police officer was shot and killed while raiding a suspected drug den although no drugs were found on the premises. The bleak reality from these and other events is that our attempts to tackle illicit drugs are not only failing but are dangerous as well.
So why do we have such strict drug laws? It’s always the same answer … to protect us from dangerous substances that ruin lives or kill people. But this is simply not true as most illicit drugs are actually less harmful than the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Either of which, kill and harm more people than all illicit drugs combined. And the reasoning for our strict drug laws become even more questionable since we discovered that they don’t even deter drug use but instead increase the harm to users and reduce the public's safety.
It appears that criminalising drug users can change the way they use drugs, but it doesn't usually stop them using drugs
-- Margaret Pereira - Queensland University of Technology Legal Researcher
It’s a real problem that in 2010, we as a society can allow certain laws remain unchallenged when we know they are dangerous, especially to our youth. Any politician who is complicit in promoting or retaining our dangerous laws that kill and harm people, need to explain themselves. It is no longer acceptable to push dangerous strategies like the "Tough on Drugs" policy for the sake of political expediency. Especially when we are continually being shown how much damage our current practices are causing without meeting any of the set objectives.
Do Drug Laws 'Harm' Drug Users?
The "one size fits all" nature of Australia's drug laws may do more harm than good when it comes to recreational drug users, according to a Queensland University of Technology legal researcher.
Margaret Pereira from QUT's Law and Justice Research Centre has launched a PhD study into young people and illicit drugs and has appealed for Brisbane drug users to come forward and anonymously have their say on their lifestyle.
Ms Pereira said it was important to understand that people used drugs in a whole variety of different ways, some of which were more harmful than others.
She said charging young people for relatively minor offences, such as drug possession, could defeat the purpose of drug law enforcement as a strategy to reduce drug-related harm.
"There's a common belief that young people who use drugs regularly have got a 'drug problem', such as an addictive personality, or some other biological or psychological problem," Ms Pereira said.
"In reality, it is only a small number of illicit drug users who define their drug use as problematic to themselves or others.
"Most young people use drugs recreationally, for fun, pleasure or leisure, and often within nightclubs or rave cultures.
"This doesn't mean that their drug use is completely free of danger, but it does mean that it's important to understand how illicit drugs are being used, and design drug policies that directly target drug-related harm."
Ms Pereira has already started interviewing young people aged 18 to 25 who use illicit drugs either recreationally or habitually.
She hopes to interview a fairly equal number of "regular" and "recreational" drug users. She is also interviewing the police, health service providers and youth advocacy workers to obtain their views about drug policies.
"Preliminary findings from my interviews suggest that when young people want to use drugs, they will, even after they've been charged with a criminal drug offence," she said.
"It appears that criminalising drug users can change the way they use drugs, but it doesn't usually stop them using drugs.
"This finding supports other study findings that criminalisation can have profoundly harmful, unintended consequences on the community and on young people. Charging them for relatively minor offences, such as drug possession, can defeat the purpose of drug law enforcement as a strategy to reduce drug-related harm.
"Another interesting finding from my interviews is the huge range of different drugs young people use and their choice of drug is often based on drug availability."
Ms Pereira said she hoped her PhD research would help build a better understanding of illicit drug use and contribute to effective policy formation.