John Erlichman, the notorious Watergate conspirator, is credited with originating the War Against Drugs in 1971 to ensure President Nixon’s re-election. Erlichman was one of the first to realise that “narcotics suppression is a very sexy political issue”. But he was also well aware that “the people in the
federal government [are] just kidding themselves and kidding the people … when they know darned well that the massive war they have mounted against narcotics is only going to be effective at the margins.”
Slowly but surely, our costly and ineffective response to illicit drugs based on law enforcement is starting to crumble. What was once a “sexy political issue” is rapidly becoming a political liability.
NSW Premier Bob Carr has acknowledged the wide spread perception that current approaches to illicit drugs have failed. This is an indispensable beginning to any real attempt to achieve better outcomes. But Carr failed to acknowledge the magnitude of this policy failure. Failure on such a scale in the corporate
world would have resulted long ago in the dismissal of all directors.
While Commonwealth and State governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year on customs, police, courts and prisons, there has been a staggering increase in recent decades in deaths, disease, crime and corruption. National drug overdose deaths increased 55 fold between 1964 and 1997.
NSW now accounts for almost half of the national deaths. Most Australians now know at least one person who has lost a close relative from drug overdose. The number of people who use Illicit drugs has been increasing steadily for the last three decades in Australia. All the indicators suggest that this increase has
been even more rapid in the last few years.
There is much to admire in the decisions which Carr and his Ministers announced at the end of July. The package canvasses a broad range of areas. Some ideas, especially the novel emphasis on early intervention for problem families, show evidence of welcome thinking “outside the square”. Funding for treatment has
been boosted substantially (although details of new allocations are not yet available). It is self evident that the package is based on a prodigious amount of work completed by government officials since the memorable Summit.
With three years and eight months to the next polls, government support at an all time high and an all but invisible opposition, the NSW government has taken some bold decisions but with astonishing trepidation. The proposed cannabis reforms, for example, are extraordinarily modest. Smoking cannabis became poplar
among young people in the 1970s. The demographic equivalent of bracket creep means that voters who have smoked cannabis form a majority of an ever increasing number of age brackets.
Carr has emphasised repeatedly his fear that new and well intended innovative responses could make already dreadful matters even worse. Yet no such fear is evident when his government reaches for the all too familiar ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric and policies. Well meaning efforts to control drug supplies have all
too often not only squandered scarce resources but had counter productive outcomes as well.
Under the influence of “tough crack downs”, drug markets have been displaced to new neighbourhoods, less harmful drugs have been replaced by more harmful drugs and less harmful ways of administering drugs have been replaced by even more harmful methods. The proposed increased spending on sniffer dogs and urine
tests in NSW prisons will mean that heroin injecting will increasingly replace more readily detectable smoking of cannabis. This may sound attractive on talk back radio, but inadvertently encouraging injecting in prison endangers public health.
The proposed trial of an injecting room in King’s Cross to be conducted by the Sisters of Charity has attracted more publicity than any other recommendation. It is important to remember that this recommendation came from a Royal Commission into police corruption, was supported by compelling arguments in a
parliamentary inquiry (though not by a majority of the committee) and was also supported by a majority of participants in the Drug Summit. The major argument of opponents, that this “sends a wrong signal” to our young people, preposterously reduces an important policy debate to semaphore signals.
The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, now clearly intends to remain irrevocably ‘part of the road’. Carr’s announcements signalling a cautious change in direction mean that the NSW government will now join Jeff Kennet and Kate Carnell to become ‘part of the steam roller’. Howard’s only major Jurassic Park
allies from now on will be Queensland, where the government’s options are limited by a parliamentary majority of just one, West Australia and the Northern Territory.
Globalisation means that sushi is now readily available in Martin Place and Vegemite in Kyoto. Inevitably, as the movement of legal commodities and funding around the world becomes easier with every passing year, illegal commodities are also becoming easier to transport, distribute and finance. Carr’s greatest
contribution to this debate was to emphasise that our future lies in better management of this difficult problem rather than chasing after fantasies like zero tolerance.
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