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Ending drug prohibition

By Evert Rauwendaal - posted Thursday, 4 March 2010

As the submissions for the National Drug Strategy 2010-2015 come to a close, we are reminded that Australia is wearing a $56.1 billion (PDF 388KB) a year alcohol and tobacco problem.

It is little wonder when you consider that alcohol continues to be sold and advertised at major sporting events as well as fast food type “drive-thru” liquor outlets. There are no product warnings, no advertising bans. Exposure to advertising is at saturation point and alcohol has never been easier or more convenient to obtain. Tourism NSW advertises getaways to “Wine Country” on billboards and gives tips to ensure visitors are left feeling “mesmerised” by their “cellar door” experience.

The Department of State and Regional Development use phrases like “world benchmark” when referring to the three-fold increase in wine production since 1995 (a now $5 billion a year industry). Market share is won with elegantly landscaped vineyards, high quality product and clever advertising. Cuddly bears are used to promote rum during cinema previews. It would seem that increasing the sale and production of alcohol, using more efficient and innovative technology, using advertising with the widest appeal is to be hailed as “success” (as long as you ignore the public health ramifications).


There are glimmers of hope though. For while cigarettes can still be sold at corner stores in packets resembling children's confectionery, consumption continues to fall. Smokers are confronted with health warnings everytime they light-up and the messages seem to be sinking in (remember it would be impossible to reach smokers in this way if tobacco were prohibited). Children are no longer exposed to tobacco products when mum or dad do the grocery shopping thanks to more recent display bans. The government should be congratulated for making these decisions.

Illicit drugs, on the other hand, account for $8.2 billion (PDF 388KB) of Australia's drug problem. Unlike alcohol, the goal is to suppress, not increase the supply. Prohibition is enforced by the criminal justice system despite having more than 30 years of evidence that drugs cannot be policed away. Law enforcement are no closer to eliminating drugs. “Busts” are pointless and futile for this very reason. Drugs continue to be distributed by people without qualifications, without quality controls and usually become “cut” (adulterated) at points along the supply chain to maximise profit; which, because of prohibition, is tax-free. Rivals in this industry settle disputes with guns and violence. Victims see little to no recompense when harm befalls them. Retribution awaits those who welsh on debts or involve the police.

Market share in this industry isn't won with glitzy ads, but seized at gunpoint. The Federal government has recently taken to reinvesting confiscated drug money in fighting the drug trade. This misguided policy ensures that drugs remain a valuable commodity and that even the smallest of drug transactions remains highly profitable. The financial incentive to sell drugs has become so great that job vacancies (created by police arrests) are instantly filled without the need to even advertise.

The grouping of recreational drugs as “licit” or “illicit” has done nothing to reduce the harms associated with the consumption of drugs in either category and should be considered a failed policy. Licit drugs remain poorly controlled and socially destructive, the illicit drug market is not controlled at all. The solution is to abandon the licit/illicit binary by ranking all recreational drugs according to their physical harms, imposing blanket advertising bans, prescription access to drugs designed to be injected and introducing a licensing scheme for the more addictive ones.

Drugs without habit forming qualities, such as MDMA and LSD, could be dispensed by chemists to adults by qualified pharmacists, who have more to lose if they sell to someone they shouldn't (unlike a desperate heroin addict). All will be heavily taxed and boxed in generic packaging with graphic pack warnings.

The introduction of these measures will undoubtedly hurt sales and reduce consumption, but also deprive miscreants and thugs of tax free income. If the government is serious about crime and substance overuse, the solution is blindingly obvious - it must abandon the policy of arbitrary drug prohibition and address the conflict between business interests and public health. It must create sensible and consistent evidence based policy to regulate drugs that are not always used for therapeutic purposes. With countries like Denmark and others slowly coming to this realisation, Australia risks being left behind.

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About the Author

Evert Rauwendaal is a Bachelor of social work graduate.

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