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Discussion on Drug Law Reform

February 1, 2012

Professor Bob Douglas (far right) chairing yesterday's Sydney University roundtable discussion on illicit drugs

A group of academics and others at Sydney University yesterday started a dialogue under the chair of Professor Bob Douglas AO exploring alternatives to continuing criminalisation of drugs in Australia. I was happy to join the discussion.

Dr Alex Wodak made the point that the corrupting effect of the illegal trafficking of drugs wasn’t limited to Mexico – and the destruction of Mexico figures big in my open-mindedness about the value of continuing prohibition – and pointed to the entire Victorian Drug Squad, a scandal in the Crime Commission in NSW, and the conviction of a senior drug squad official in South Australia. These confirmed it was not just Mexico that struggled with the problem. Wodak said, “We are a mini Mexico.”

He used the argument if you can’t keep drugs out of prison, you have very little chance of keeping them out of any corner in society; and if a quantity of drugs sells for $300 in the streets of Bangkok but $300,000 in Kings Cross, then there is going to be a strong force for importation and the black market here.

Something I picked up from the discussion: education is the least effective way of reducing harm. Interesting, people who should know say bluntly it doesn’t work no matter how it’s shaped and directed.

After 40 years experience of law and order, most of these experts were arguing, it’s clear that criminalisation doesn’t work. The challenge you will face, I suggested, is that someone like John Howard will argue that you are proposing a leap in the dark. That as unsatisfactory as things are now, they could be worse. And you’ll be told that deaths from heroin have fallen 1,100 a year to 400 a year.

With former politicians Kate Carnell and Dr Michael Wooldridge, and former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery

Some young participants in the discussion reminded us of the reality that youth cultures are normalising drug use. They pointed out that a combination of stimulant drugs with hallucinatory qualities are considered routine at dance parties.

I spoke about the NSW experience in defending the provision of clean needles to drug users, and persuading the public to accept the experiment of a medically supervised injecting room, as well as decriminalising personal use of marijuana and expanding methadone treatment.

One restraint on any process of decriminalisation is our international treaties. They would stop an Australian government decriminalising drugs (although they don’t appear to have stopped Portugal).

The debate will go on.

I don’t think a change of policy is imminent.

10 Comments
  1. February 1, 2012 3:40 pm

    Good to see you’re having a look at this. Did you happen to catch the Intelligence Squared debate on the subject? It strikes me that like many other issues, gambling, alcholoism etc, this should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. Surely, there are better things the police could be doing rather than trying to police this and taking out innocents in the crossfire.

  2. February 1, 2012 4:48 pm

    One of the things that could be done is help people who are on drugs but who want to get off them, of whom there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands in Sydney alone. I have a friend who as a doctor is doing just that all day every day – helping people get off drugs, with considerable success, but with no support from people like you, Bob Carr. I remember my friend telling me back in 2003-05 that helping people to get off heroin without being able to prescribe buprenorphine was like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. And I tried to take up the cause with your Minister for Health, Morris Iemma, but it was hopeless. There weren’t enough doctors in NSW able to prescribe buprenorphine. I remember ringing up his hotline and asking who was the doctor nearest to Parramatta who could prescribe buprenorphine and the person I was talking to just laughed, and said, “There aren’t any!” It turned out, there was a huge area of Sydney without one doctor able to prescribe buprenorphine. But was Morris Iemma concerned? Were you concerned? You were too high and mighty to be involved. I would love to discuss this matter with you now, but you are too high and mighty to let anyone have your email address.

  3. Doug Brown permalink
    February 2, 2012 6:45 pm

    Criminalisation of theft has not stopped theft either. Should we decriminalise theft?

    Having worked for eleven years in Corrective Services, and now retired, I can say that efforts to keep drugs out of prison are reasonably successful. But not 100% successful. Corrective Services tries to keep knives and other weapons out prison too, but is not 100% successful. Should Corrective Services give up on drugs and knives because it does not achieve perfection?

    Re-read Theodore Dalyrmple.

    • Cam permalink
      February 6, 2012 12:43 pm

      Property theft and drug use are two completely different things, and someone’s view on each issue depends on their philosophy. On one side, a person may say that man has to sustain their life through their own efforts, and so should have a right to the production of his efforts. On a deeper level, one could say that it is your human right to own your body, and thus do what you wish with it AS LONG AS it does no harm to others. Saying that you can have property rights without human rights or vise versa is like trying to separate ‘soul’ and ‘body’.
      I am the son of a correctional officer and have frequent exposure to the prison system, with a view that there has to be a solution to drug users clogging up prisons.

  4. February 6, 2012 12:20 pm

    It is my body. If I want to take drugs it is my choice. The notion that the government has any business regulating this choice is obscene. Prohibition is immoral. Prohibition is expensive. Prohibition causes harm. The case for prohibition has always been extremely weak.

    Those that want to see an end to prohibition should look at voting for the Liberal Democrats (LDP) or the HEMP Party as they are the only parties with a policy of reducing prohibition.

  5. Jono permalink
    February 7, 2012 9:01 am

    Try legalizing theft and see what kind of chaos results.

    Try legalizing marijuana and drug usage won’t even rise, whilst nearly half the prison, courts and police resources will be freed up for other priorities.

    • Doug Brown permalink
      February 7, 2012 6:39 pm

      If legalizing marijuana were so simple, why has no jursidiction done it? Years ago, one Bob Carr wrote an article for the SMH outlining the policy problems with legalizing drugs.

      As for the argument “This is my body and I can do what I want with it”, legalizing drugs would lead to many more drug overdoses and cases of schizophrenia. Does the public health system just pick up the tab?

      As for the prison population, it is one of the enduring myths of our society that a huge number of prisoners are in prison as a result of drug taking. Superficially, that is true. But, in survey after survey, analysis after analysis, it becomes clear that most prisoners who are in prison for “drug offences” (peddling drugs, stealing to get money to buy drugs, etc), started their criminal careers BEFORE they started taking drugs. They start stealing from, say, Woollies, at the age of 10, but take their first suck of marijuana at age 12.

      • Bob Carr permalink
        February 7, 2012 9:27 pm

        Yes, huge practical problems with legalization. Glad you remember that 1989 article. I myself must revisit it.

      • Cam permalink
        February 7, 2012 10:15 pm

        My response to your points Doug:

        “This is my body and I can do what I want with it” is largely an ideology that relates to personal freedom, if one believe in this statement, it is essential to believe that I should not be forced to pay up for the crumbling public health system against my will. What if i want to opt out of that system? I have no choice.
        “Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.” – Rand
        And when you tell me that i must pay tax you are forcing me to pay, if i do not pay I must be locked in a cage.
        There are many ways to go about this without being forced to pay for a person who is suffering the repercussions of his own actions.

        Anyway putting that aside, I don’t about how many people are going to rush to buy and use drugs as soon as they are legalised, and i don’t know why you think legalisation of drugs would automatically mean there are more overdoses? Why, with the benefit of not hiding the issue, surely more people will be better educated on the issue of usage. Quality also raises if drugs are legalised, whether it be under government or market control.

        The issue of schizophrenia and its relatedness to marijuana is debatable.
        (see http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2005559-2,00.html) And while schizophrenia may in turn be caused by marijuana there are other factors contributing to it. Not to mention that schizophrenia is not always caused in marijuana users.

        I’m sure there are many underground-drug related killings and crimes rather than drug-posession offenses. And even if there aren’t, wouldnt the thought of stopping violent crimes in relation to drug supply be worth it?

        and finally I cant find the article you are referring to, do you have an online link? It would be interesting, or if you could give a breif outline of the possible practical issues here?

        If i’ve got something wrong her Terje,in relation to how you stand, feel free to correct me..

  6. john permalink
    February 13, 2012 6:42 pm

    Many lives have been ruined from the day of being convicted, on marijuana charge, this conviction is for all of ones life, it makes it hard to obtain a Visa to lots of countries, you are not allowed employment in a lot of cases, a criminal record for getting caught smoking pot, well i may say the number of people out there, that have smoked pot is staggering , i don’t know where anyone else lives , but i tell you it is everywhere, so how can the people in power keep making criminals out of just the average person, that was unlucky enough to get caught, look at the number of those in Government that have come out saying they have smoked it…. oh but i didn’t inhale.C’MON, Criminalization does more harm than the Marijuana.

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