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New drugs policy needed

By Peter Baume - posted Monday, 16 April 2012

On 31 January 2012 a large group of drug experts gathered for a drug policy Roundtable at the University of Sydney. Australia21 published a report in early April 2012 based on the Roundtable. Members of the Roundtable included former police commissioners, former prosecutors, academics, drug experts, three former Premiers (one now a Senator and Cabinet Minister) and Chief Ministers, three former Ministers for Health, young people, parents whose son had died from a heroin overdose and drug aficionados. In the Report that emerged the group pointed out that the down side of present policy approaches far outweighed the benefits and asked that the community re-open the debate on illicit drugs. The Group said that current policy was entrenching corruption, was criminalising too many people and we were allowing it all to happen. Official policy seems to have more to do with populist politics than with rationality.

Every coin has two sides. People could argue correctly for benefits or costs of any policy approach. Drugs are no different, and there are costs and benefits to any society from any approach that could be taken. Any new policy would have costs as well as benefits. The task for society is to work out which approach is “least worst” and to consider and hopefully to give a trial to that approach.

Australia has theoretically had a harm minimisation approach since 1985 but the reality belies that approach. Of every government dollar spent, we have spent 75 cents on supply interruption, 17 cents on demand reduction and just one cent on harm reduction. The rhetoric in the debate has been awful with people who should know better talking about being “tough on drugs”, and about a “war on drugs” and appointing hard line people to important positions. Too much of the time of our courts is taken up with drug matters, too many people are in our prisons for drug related matters, too many of our children have contact with criminals, there is too much drug-related corruption, and so on.


What is illicit anyhow is partly a matter of fashion. Heroin was once legal. Opium was once legal. Cannabis was once legal. Tobacco was once illegal. The Americans tried alcohol prohibition and abandoned it when it became clear that the downsides far exceeded the benefits. 

We tax and regulate and examine some legal drugs. Perhaps we should consider doing the same with some other drugs.

American bullying plays a part in what Australia does. The Americans have got drug policy wrong, just as they got alcohol prohibition wrong, just as they have got a lot of other things wrong.  Their influence on the world has been pernicious. And do not forget that some of the heroin sold to troops on the streets of Saigon during the American war in Vietnam was grown in Indo China with money provided by the CIA. 

The results from our policy in Australia have been awful. Illicit drugs are illegal yet they are readily available, they are in every high school, their use is widespread, interdiction stops only a small proportion of the drug supply to our community, the domestic production of illicit drugs is increasing. Purity is non-existent, good manufacturing practices do not occur, profits are enormous, and taxes are not paid.  Turf wars between gangs that produce and sell illicit drugs are terrifying people, our children are mixing with criminals, there is corruption in the very services that we have set up to protect our communities, there are enormous tax free profits for sellers of illicit drugs, there is use of illicit drugs by about 30 per cent of our young people and there are scared parents. 

If our policies are correct when are they going to succeed? Have not they had long enough now? What outcome measures should we be demanding?

What we want is that the whole approach to illicit drugs be re-visited seriously. We are parents too and we want better than we have now. We want our children to be safe, we do not want them mixing with criminals, we do not want them to acquire criminal records, we do not want corruption in our police, or our customs services, or in our magistracy, we want sellers of drugs to pay tax. We want the “Mr Bigs” of the drug game to be caught and punished: that does not seem to happen often at present.


What a new policy will be is another matter. A more mature debate will probably produce a better policy and our society will then be better off.  We could scarcely do worse than we are doing now.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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