The number of people arrested for possessing drugs in New South Wales (Australia) has doubled over the past six years, with NSW leading a national trend towards increased law enforcement directed at individual drug users. Yet the spike in arrests appears to have done nothing to stem the tide of drug use, with the state this week hitting the 1 million mark for the number of people who have recently used illicit drugs. The data comes as the NSW Bar Association released a report finding drug prohibition has been a failure and calling for reform. (Fact sheet: Cannabis and the law)
There is no reliable evidence that tougher criminal sanctions deter drug use or offending. On the contrary, criminalisation worsens the health and wellbeing of drug users, increases risk behaviours, drives the spread of HIV, encourages other crime and discourages drug users from seeking treatment. A report by Australia21, Alternatives to Prohibition, subtitled Illicit drugs: how we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, sets out the lessons learnt about the failed war on drugs from other countries, especially Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal.
"As a 33-year police practitioner who was commissioner of the Australian Federal Police during the 'tough on drugs' period, I fully understand the concerns of those who argue there is no reason to reconsider drug policy and I shared many of them until recent years," the former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police and director of the Australia 21 think tank, Mick Palmer, writes. "The reality is that, contrary to frequent assertions, drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market. This is true in most countries in the world."
It is time to reopen the national debate about drug use, its regulation and control. In June 2011 a prestigious Global Commission stated that the 40-year “War on Drugs” has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. It urged all countries to look at the issue anew. In response to the Global Commission report, Australia21, in January 2012, convened a meeting of 24 former senior Australian politicians and experts on drug policy, to explore the principles and recommendations that were enunciated by the Global Commission.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, is among a group of prominent Australians who said the ''war on drugs'' is a failure. ''The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are letting it happen,'' says a report released by the group, which includes the former federal police chief Mick Palmer, the former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, the former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop, a former Defence Department secretary, Paul Barratt, the former federal health ministers Michael Wooldridge and Peter Baume, and the drug addiction expert Alex Wodak. (See also: Gillard and Carr divided over decriminalisation of drug)
Scientists, lawyers, police, social workers, doctors and directors of public prosecution are pleading for change but no political party will touch the issue in Australia. Public debate on the subject remains as primitive as ever. After all these years we are still dealing with the basics – over and over again. That's no accident. It's what moral panic driven by some media does.