4 September 2013
During the 2013 federal election campaign, several parties have campaigned on platforms featuring decriminalisation and even legalisation of drugs.
The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) has been asked to comment on their policies. This is a summary of the ADF's position on decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs, as well as what we consider the priority issues in reducing harm from illict drugs in our community. You can also read about our call for an updated National Alcohol Strategy.
Comments from Australian Drug Foundation's Head of Policy, Geoff Munro in response to a request from The 7PM Project for analysis of the Drug Law Reform Party's election platform.
4 September 2013
Drug issues have made little impact on the federal election to date. One positive aspect is the decision by the Liberal Party to join the Labor Party in rejecting donations from the tobacco industry. Next on the agenda should be alcohol industry donations – Australians should be able to rely on politicians making alcohol policy decisions on their merits and not worrying about the impact on their party's finances.
Alcohol, the drug that kills 3000 Australians and puts 70000 into hospital each year, is missing from the electoral agenda. Oddly Australia's national alcohol strategy terminated in 2011 and neither party shows interest in reviving it.
Into the drug policy vacuum has stepped the Drug Law Reform Party (DLRP). The DLRP wants a Royal Commission into Illicit Drugs including into the health, economic and social costs and the impact on crime and corruption. Having a thorough inquiry into the best ways of tackling our intractable drug problem is worthwhile, but the problem is the DLRP has already decided the outcome. It wants to legalise the production and sale of drugs 'along the lines of....New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland and Colorado and Washington'1. Unfortunately, the DLRP ignores Australia's harm minimisation approach and adopts a solution that is too simple and is not based on evidence.
As in Australia, drug policy in each of those places has retreated from the strictest form of prohibition, but they also differ markedly. It is crucial to distinguish between providing a drug for therapeutic purposes, decriminalisation (which reduces legal penalties for drug personal use) and commercial legalisation which would allow the substance to be sold to the public, as is alcohol and tobacco. Switzerland provides heroin as part of treatment for people dependent on opiates, but has not legalised drugs for the wider population. Portugal decriminalised personal use of illicit drugs but continues to prohibit production and trafficking; Colorado and Washington are in the process of legalising cannabis though the details are not yet clear; New Zealand is planning to legalise synthetic substances if they prove to be safe, although none are yet tested.
The party claims Australia must stop the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs in the USA is characterised by harsh enforcement measures such as long prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences for first time offenders, a reluctance to provide methadone and other pharmacotherapies for drug dependent people, and refusal to provide needles and other equipment for people who inject drugs. But that is not Australia's policy: we have followed a different path with extensive treatment programs including methadone programs, community based needle exchanges, and programs to keep offenders out of prison. Drug diversion and cautioning schemes operate which prevent drug offenders from gaining a criminal conviction for personal use of drugs. In some states and territories people who are charged with drug possession offences, and have no record of violence, can avoid a conviction for first, second or third offences if they agree to attend a drug treatment program2.
The Drug Law Reform Party holds out the lure of tax revenue from legalised drugs. It states Australians spent $7 billion on illegal drugs in 2012 and it concludes a legal market would extract GST of $700 million which could be devoted to education. That calculation assumes all the illicit drugs – namely cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine-- could be made legal, and the price paid by consumers would remain the same.
But the price of drugs will come down if they are legal: according to Australia's best known drug law campaigner, Dr Alex Wodak, that is the point --a low price will undermine the black market and cut off the money supply to criminals. Considering the case of cannabis, reputable drug scholars predict that in a legal market the price of cannabis will fall by as much as 80-90%3. But if the legal price is low, the tax revenue will be low. And no one knows how much of the revenue will be absorbed by the costs of administering the regulated market.
Researchers say the outcomes of legalisation will depend on a host of 'known unknowns': they include the retail price point; which in turn depends partly on the level of tax applied to the product; whether consumers like the legal product; and whether the black market comes up with more attractive products4. They also predict that drug use will increase as the price falls and stigma is removed5. That is the DLRP's highest hurdle– how to convince the public that legalising drugs is the best option when it will likely stimulate drug consumption and lead more people to develop drug problems.
Creating a legal market for drugs would create a powerful industry that will try to reduce regulation and public accountability, just as alcohol and tobacco producers and retailers oppose every attempt to control them. The self-interest of drug retailers is evident in the policy of the Australian Sex Party whose members sell the quasi-legal synthetic drugs – the Sex Party wants the government to legalise synthetic drugs even though evidence suggests they can do immediate harm, and the long term effects on the body are not known. The Sex Party also advocates for reduced taxes on alcohol and tobacco6. That does not bode well for a regulated market.
Australia is still struggling with problems caused by use of tobacco and alcohol, and there is no reason to expect we could do a better job of controlling other drugs if they were legal.
Legalising all drugs is a fanciful notion and the Drug Law Reform Party has offered no proof that it would achieve any positive outcome. There is no evidence that it would reduce drug problems, or save money, let alone earn extra revenue, and it has no support from the public. The idea of legalising drugs serves as a distraction from more serious policies.
The Australian Drug Foundation believes much more can be done to reduce the human cost of drug use. To start, the supervised injecting facility that has proved successful in reducing overdoses in Sydney and offering a treatment pathway for its clients should be replicated in Melbourne and other injecting hotspots; people in prison need access to clean injecting equipment to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and other blood borne viruses; and governments should hold a medically supervised heroin trial for persons who are dependent on heroin and who do not respond to other therapeutic remedies. People arrested for drug use or possession should be referred for counselling or treatment instead of incarceration.
However the main focus of drug policy should lie in reducing the drivers of illicit drug use: that means educating the whole community about drug use issues; helping parents to nurture their children through adolescence; ensuring all young people complete schooling and have access to jobs, training or further education; assisting people with mental health needs to access health services; and providing attractive recreational opportunities for young people.
2. Lenton S. Drug policy reform: moving beyond strict criminal penalties for drugs. Policy Talk. Australian Drug Foundation, 2012. http://www.adf.org.au/policy-advocacy/policytalk-september-2012
3. Caulkins J, Kilmer B. et al Design considerations for legalizing cannabis: lessons inspired by analysis of California's proposition 19. Addiction, 107: 865-871, 2011.
4. Caulkins, ibid.
5. MacCoun RJ and Reuter P. Drug war heresies, Cambridge University Press: USA; 2001.