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The failed war on drugs

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Thursday, 18 September 2008

Ten years ago, the United Nations (UN) promised to deliver a “drug-free” world by the year 2008. Pino Arlacchi, the Drug Czar at the UN, exclaimed that although “[t]here are naysayers who believe a global fight against illegal drugs is unwinnable ... they are wrong”. For what seemed like the umpteenth time, the UN assured us that if we simply sent them more money, their team of “experts” would take care of the problem.

A decade later, how has UN fared? Any dispassionate observer would surely agree that they have failed dismally. After all, drugs are more widely available than before.

Take a long-term view and the result is the same. On almost every indicator, outcomes have gotten worse since the so-called war on drugs began.


Most tragically, drug overdose deaths have increased. In 1964, there were six drug overdose deaths in Australia. Yet by 1999, this number had grown to 958 deaths (Modernising Australia's Drug Policy by Alex Wodak and Timothy Moore).

The number of injecting users has also increased. A study in 1999 concluded that the number of injecting drug users in Australia had been doubling every ten years since the 1960s, reaching 100,000 regular injectors and an additional 175,000 occasional injectors by 1997.

Although the drug warriors are vague as to what constitutes “victory”, it seems to me that if their goal is to save lives, this is not being achieved by the present strategy.

Unfortunately, lack of success has not stopped the expansion of drug interdiction programs. Like the child who murders his parents and then pleads for pity because he is an orphan, governments have a long history of asking for regulatory powers despite creating much of the mess we see today in the area of drug policy.

The financial costs are mounting. Despite $13 billion of taxpayer money being spent by Australian governments between 1976 and 2000, the Federal Police website reports that “[t]he illicit drug trade has become an international, multi billion dollar enterprise, estimated to be bigger than the oil trade and second only to the arms trade”.

We continue to spend $100 million a year, yet surveys consistently show that drugs are easily available. Of those aged 14 and older, 33.5 per cent have tried marijuana, 8.9 per cent have tried ecstasy, 6.3 per cent have tried amphetamines, 5.9 per cent have tried cocaine and 1.6 per cent have tried heroin. In spite of efforts by police, 38.1 per cent of the community has tried an illicit drug at some point in their life. That equates to nearly 8 million people.


These figures, from the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, are just the tip of the iceberg because many do not admit their use due to fear of the law.

This is a war we are losing. Current statistics suggest that police only intercept a small percentage of the illegal drugs entering Australia. Even in the rare instances when law enforcement does succeed in significantly reducing the supply of a particular drug, users simply turn to other drugs instead. This was the case with the heroin drought of 2001: although heroin was less widely available, cocaine use rose to compensate.

We need a more rational drug policy - one that provides better value for money, and does not marginalise users so they are afraid to seek the treatment they need. We should show more compassion towards non-violent drug users, instead of filling our prisons.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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