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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Will the “drugs war” strategy work?

In May, before he was ignominiously ejected from office, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched a so-called “war on drugs”. Abbott would incite public anxiety to boost support for his policies, and the advertising campaign used horrifying images of attacks on medical staff by people addicted to crystallised methamphetamines, commonly known as “ice”.

The organised crime squad from Perth Chem Centre Western Australia and Bunbury forensics arrived at a crime scene.

The use of ice has certainly increased within the last few years, and users can have violent rages culminating in physical assault. However, some experts who deal with drug abuse believe the ad campaign failed to adequately address the threat from other drugs, and that it will focus on arresting users of illicit drugs rather than helping them change their behaviour.

Moreover, problematic users of ice represent only half of one percent of the population, and not all users engage in violent behaviour. Emergency hospital staff say they have a far more extensive problem with the abuse of alcohol than with methamphetamines.

Smoking still constitutes a major threat to public health – yet tobacco and alcohol are rarely mentioned in government statements regarding addictive substance abuse.

One recent study indicates that alcohol was the biggest threat to the public in Britain, and was the only addictive substance out of 20 studied that caused more damage to the public than the user. Alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were all found to be more harmful than methamphetamines. (Drug Harms in the UK, a Multicriteria Analysis 2010)

The use of ice increased by 28 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2013, particularly among the poorest members of the community, leading to more deaths and psychological problems. They prefer heroin, but ice is cheap and readily available.

Ice certainly poses a real threat to public health and safety, but anti-drug campaigns should cover all addictive substances (including those legally used or consumed), public education campaigns should be based on scientific evidence, and different tactics should be adopted according to the substance involved.

Which way to go?

Some experts argue that criminality should apply to dangerous behaviour resulting from the use of drugs or alcohol, for example drink driving, rather than the act of taking these substances itself. However, illicit drugs like ice, which are known to lead to aggressive, violent behaviour should never be legalised.

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recommends reducing the availability of drugs, disrupting user behaviour and integrating education and health initiatives into anti-drug programs. Others have pointed out that families should be involved in treatment programs.

In the 1960s the US Nixon administration initiated a widely effective public education campaign about drugs, but in an attempt to gain electoral appeal this approach was later dropped in favour of increasing the number of user arrests. The drug use rate then resumed its upwards spiral.

The Abbott government’s “war on drugs” also emphasised punishment of users, and if other policy areas are anything to go by, the Turnbull regime will do the same.

Some 66 percent of funding regarding drugs is currently spent on law enforcement, and only 2 percent on harm reduction, which has led drug expert Gino Vumbaca to describe the anti-drug campaign as “a war against our own children”.

The interception of drug imports and the local manufacture of drugs are crucial elements in the struggle against drugs, but they must be supplemented by other measures. The NSW Commissioner of Police has likened the recent seizure of a record haul of illicit drugs to “taking a bucket of water from Sydney Harbour”.

Australia has had some very successful initiatives to counter the use of addictive substances, including compulsory plain paper packaging of cigarettes and the legal establishment of hygienic injecting rooms.

There is a cogent argument for decriminalising the use of marijuana, which is now widely recommended for easing the suffering of patients with incurable diseases, and in the short term does not pose the same sort of public hazard as other illicit drugs.

However, marijuana sold illicitly on the street is often laced with speed or other drugs to increase its addictive impact, and there is evidence that even home-grown marijuana may induce paranoia or impotence if used for long periods.

The cigarette industry is eagerly awaiting the legalising of marijuana use, and some experts have predicted a major increase in the use of marijuana if it is ever legalised, as has happened in some US states.

It’s therefore crucial that legalisation should be subject to strictly enforced requirements regarding purity of the product, graphic plain paper packaging and other public education programs warning of the health hazards involved, and assistance for those wanting to kick the habit.

Can the government deliver?

One potentially fruitful method of reducing the extent of drug use is to offer users a medical treatment to break the addiction. A clinical trial of lisdexamphetamine, a substitute for ice, is currently being conducted by the University of NSW and the Australian National University, and is likely to provide an effective means of helping ice users beat their addiction.

Education and rehabilitation programs are crucial, but their implementation depends on the willingness of governments to provide the necessary funding and support. Organisations dedicated to beating drug addiction are financially dependent on 12-monthly government grants, and are reluctant to criticise government drug policies for fear of losing the grant.

The Victorian government is giving ice users the option of undergoing intensive treatment rather than serving jail sentences. That’s a good idea because illicit drugs are rife in some jails. However, users often have to wait months for treatment in government institutions, and private treatment can cost $30,000.

Labor’s initiative regarding plain packaging of cigarettes was highly successful. However, tobacco companies have launched an international court action, claiming the packaging law violates their intellectual property rights.

Moreover, under the proposed Pan Pacific Partnership trade agreement the Turnbull government is currently promoting, the tobacco industry could sue the government for loss of profits because of the packaging legislation.

Conservative Australian governments will never take effective action to deal with alcohol abuse, and the Turnbull government’s policies will have a minimum impact on other areas of the drugs crisis. To make real progress we will have to rely on the combined force of Australia’s left and progressive parties.

Next article – Fulfilling the dream

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