Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Neo-liberalism and illicit drug liberalization: a natural alliance?

By Philip Mendes - posted Monday, 22 April 2013

Over the past year there has been vocal calls for illicit drug law reform from a number of sources including the Australia 21 think tank, the Yarra City Council and the Australian Medical Association. The latter two organisations have recommended a trial of supervised injecting facilities in Victoria, but to date both the State Coalition Government and the Opposition Labor Party have rejected their proposals. This bi-partisan consensus in favour of retaining the existing (mainly prohibitionist) approach to illicit drug use arguably typifies the absence of a serious drug policy debate in Australia.

It is often assumed that the political Right favours tougher illicit drug laws, and the Left supports the liberalization of drug laws. But in practice the policy debate is rather more complex. With the exception of the Australian Greens, the Australian Left has mostly been silent on illicit drugs.

Equally, the Right is divided. Social conservatives generally endorse zero tolerance or prohibitionist approaches. But neo-liberals or economic libertarians – those who believe in individual liberty and limited government intervention with the free market - appear on the surface to have a natural philosophical predisposition to favour harm reduction or drug liberalisation policies. Harm reduction involves strategies designed to reduce harm to individuals and the community such as needle and syringe exchanges, methadone treatment programs, supervised injecting facilities, and prescribed heroin. Harm reduction takes a dispassionate public health and morally neutral approach to illicit drug use.


Globally a number of neo-liberals have been strong supporters of drug liberalisation. For example, the American economist Milton Friedman argued as early as 1972 that all drugs should be completely legalized. Friedman and his colleagues construct drugs as a form of property which individuals should have the choice to purchase or not purchase. Existing controls and criminal penalties constitute an abuse of civil liberties.

In 1989, Friedman told a drugs war advocate that:

The path you propose of more police, more jails, use of the military in foreign countries, harsh penalties for drug users, and a whole panoply of repressive measures can only make a bad situation worse. The drug war cannot be won by those tactics without undermining the human liberty and individual freedom that you and I cherish.

In a further 1991 interview, he stated:

Now here's somebody who wants to smoke a marijuana cigarette. If he's caught, he goes to jail. Now is that moral? I think it's absolutely disgraceful that our government should be in the position of converting people who are not harming others into criminals, of destroying their lives, putting them in jail.

There are a number of economic arguments that underpin this drug liberalisation perspective, some of which were summarized in an earlier NSW Parliament report. Firstly, harm reduction initiatives such as the provision of heroin to registered addicts or the introduction of supervised injecting facilities may help to reintegrate illicit drug users into the market economy via paid work, and reduce reliance on welfare services and income security payments. Secondly, there is likely to be a reduction of economic costs to the community in terms of associated crime, health costs including the treating of overdoses and blood-borne infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C or Hepatitis B, and public nuisance such as discarded syringes in public spaces. Finally, should we adopt a policy of full legalisation this is likely to result in drugs being lower in price and higher in quality. Additionally, governments would be able to collect large sums in revenue from taxation, and make major savings from reduced law enforcement costs.


Nevertheless to date, local neo-liberal think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) – both based on loose coalitions of liberals and conservatives – have hesitated to adopt clear positions on illicit drugs.

The CIS has over time published a number of papers in its in-house Policy journal by economists Robert Marks, John Humphreys and Kevin Murphy exposing the failures of prohibition, and making the economic case for legalisation. But equally the CIS has published contrary views on at least one occasion.

In October 2009, the CIS hosted a talk by Dr Norm Stamper, a former Seattle Chief of Police and strong advocate of drug decriminalisation.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

10 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Mendes

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Philip Mendes
Article Tools
Comment 10 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy