War on Drugs



The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (15:34): I rise to speak today on the failed 'war on drugs', particularly in light of several pieces of harmful legislation that have been introduced or announced by the Marshall government. The idea that we need to be tougher on drugs, wage war on them, or any other silly and militaristic sentence we want to use to describe this clearly failed approach is not just misguided but is actively dangerous. Jill Stark, author of High Sobriety, puts it best:

It is premised on gut emotion, and the fallacy that criminalising drug takers sends a message that “drugs are bad”, and if you say that loud enough and long enough people will stop using them.

To paraphrase Barak Obama, I am not against all wars, but I am against stupid wars, and the war on drugs is a stupid war. Treatment is a better use of public funds than a war on drugs. Our punitive model currently wastes public funds and it clearly does not work. It is well known that a war on drugs that was sparked about half a century ago has been one of the biggest failures of public policy, and an expensive one.

In Australia, we spend approximately $1.7 billion annually on our illicit drugs policy, with almost 65 per cent of that being spent on supply reduction via law enforcement. By comparison, only 22 per cent of this amount is spent on treatment, 9.5 per cent on prevention, and a pitiful 2.2 per cent on harm reduction. It could not be more clear that we have it completely the wrong way round in Australia.

Criminalisation has not reduced the harm caused by substance misuse and dependence, but it has cost countless lives, it has wasted a fortune of public funds, it has enriched criminal cartels, and most of all it has lead us to treat people with a medical problem—an addiction—as criminals. The amount of money that we spend on criminalisation should be diverted from the criminal justice system to the health system, where we know there is a great need for more treatment facilities and support for those going through addiction recovery and for them to stay well.

Harm reduction, treatment, decriminalisation and legalisation saves lives. And you would think—well, you would hope—that that would be enough on its own. All human lives are valuable and we should do all we can to save them. However, for those who need the economic argument, it simply makes economic sense to alter our course on substance misuse. Treatment provides a far greater return on investment than law enforcement interventions. Some estimates even grade it as being 10 to 15 times more of a cost-effective option.

We cannot keep treating drug use as a criminal issue; it is a heath issue. We cannot keep locking up people who need our help. Our prisons are already at breaking point, with prisoner numbers in Australia rising by 40 per cent between 2012 and 2017; 15 per cent of those behind bars are there because of illicit drugs offences. Illicit drugs land Australians in prison more than any other offence, save for assault. Instead of helping these people, we are locking them up with no support, and perversely even sometimes where it is easier to obtain these substances, and alienating them from family, friends, work, society, and of course help. Let's rethink. Anti-drug programs driven by scare tactics are not only ineffective but they are also counterproductive. The war on drugs has failed. The war should be over. Let us instead look to other solutions.

I will conclude my remarks by urging members to look to models of decriminalisation, of treating this as the health issue that it is. Look to Portugal, whose sweeping legal reforms occurred in 2001 and now we can see how effective they have been. Death by overdose has halved, HIV infection rates have declined by one-fifth. Heroin use has halved. There has been a decrease in all illicit drug use among adults from 12 per cent to 9.5 per cent. Recent drug use amongst adults has declined from 3.7 per cent to 2.7 per cent. Portugal now has the lowest rate of cannabis use in Europe. Crime rates have declined in Portugal.

Of course our situation is different, with different dimensions, but let us get these public policy lessons from places where it has worked, instead of letting our gut feelings, emotions, and the rhetoric on war on drugs get in the way. Let us minimise harm and maximise social good.


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