Earlier this year an Australia21 meeting took place to discuss the topic of legalising drugs. Many of the participants have been advocating for drug reform in this direction for decades, and their conclusion was that the debate on drugs should be re-opened. I couldn't agree more. What I don't agree with is the assertion that their position is derived from scientific evidence.
The Roundtable Report paints a grim picture of the drug scene in Australia at the moment and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the 'Tough on Drugs' approach with its 'populist politics' and gung-ho policing.
There are a few problems with this.
The first is that there isn't much clarity on whether and in what way the drug problem is getting worse. We are told, for instance, that opioid use has increased globally by 35%. We aren't told that the vast majority of this increase is due to the abuse of prescribed opioids and that overall heroin use is on the decline.
The second is that, assuming the drug problem is getting worse, can all the blame be laid upon on so-called populist politics? In Australia at least, the official policy has been harm minimisation since 1985. Couldn't this have contributed to the problem?
Not so, say the doyens of drug reform. We are led to believe that harm minimisation approaches are the only truly effective measures. These are the measures which gave us the $2.7 million a year Kings Cross injecting room where overdose rates run at between 35-42 times the rate inside as they do outside and where less than 11 per cent of clients receive a drug treatment referral.
We are left with the idea that things are bad and getting worse, but harm minimisation is good and if we want it to get better we need more harm minimisation. We are led to believe that the only really bad thing would be to question the harm minimisation approach.
I think a new drug policy debate should question the harm minimisation approach. In particular, it should question three big assumptions it makes:
The first is the idea "what is illict is partly a matter of fashion."
The assumption here is that we ban dangerous psychotropic substances for political or prejudicial reasons. The moral significance of taking recreational drugs is about equivalent to eating a curry. At least in the quote above there is admission that our reasons for making drugs illegal are only 'partly' fashion. It would be worth fleshing out the other 'part' of the picture.
The next assumption is that drug use is, has been, and always must be a part of life. This is belied by the fact countries such as Sweden have made a significant impact on drug use in that country by taking an unambiguous stance against drugs.
Even if we concede that there will always be some drugs somewhere, it does not follow that these patterns won't change in response to positive policy. And even if we imagine that there will always be lots of drugs everywhere, it doesn't have to be the case for the individual with a drug addiction. The defeatist argument that drugs will always be part of society is effectively telling each addicted individual: 'drugs will always be a part of your life'.
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