The drug debate and whether to decriminalise some illegal substances is getting fair coverage lately and rightly so. It's a topic needing new ideas and realistic perspectives. Yet can the drug debate ever be fair? The simple answer is no.
While anti-drug campaigners use emotional argument often surrounding the death of loved ones as their primary and very public banner, decriminalisation campaigners have only logic, statistics, theory and research to sway public opinion. Put simply, apples are just not being compared to apples. In any argument between emotion and logic, there is only ever one winner. The emotional position and the 'real-life' tragedies that colour their banner so well will win every time. Just ask anyone in advertising.
No one doubts the terrible grief experienced by the parents of Anna Wood, Daniel Smith or hundreds of others who die of illicit drug related deaths every year. The death of a child is horrific and something parents can never overcome. The premature death of anyone is terrible. Yet how many deaths are there from illicit drugs each year? Is death by illicit drug a universal and unavoidable truth?
According to research from both the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 1,400 unintentional deaths occur each year from illicit drugs or an immediate by-product like Hepatitis C. In comparison, an average 3,500 people die from alcohol related illness and a staggering 15,000 die as a result of tobacco related causes.
Of all the recreational 'drugs' available to Australians, illegal ones constitute only 7% of the total drug deaths each year. Legal drugs dominate in the death stakes – a fact many anti-drug campaigners fail to mention. What's more telling is that the 7% of illegal drugs deaths includes death from the 'hard drugs' like heroin or mandrax, with most of these deaths coming as a result of hepatitis B or C through needle sharing. Deaths through 'Softer' recreational drugs like ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis, drugs without needle requirements, rate very low indeed.
Yet in the media game, the game of public opinion, it's the emotional argument complete with pictures of grieving parents and once smiling children that has the greatest impact. Newspaper articles depicting the young face of Anna Wood combined with the image of her two distraught parents leaves an indelible mark on our psyche. The true-life drama commands more attention and indeed wins more votes than the harsh yet very real statistic. The modern true-life drama of George W Bush's search for 'weapons of mass destruction' captured the world's imagination and drove us all down a road we didn't need to travel. The harsh reality proved the drama had no basis in fact. Many dramas don't. They may have a basis in one truth, yet certainly not a universal truth.
Closely related to this emotion versus logic imbalance is the fact that there is virtually no one on the decriminalisation side willing to own up to a current or past positive use of illegal recreational drugs. They would either be out of a job or in prison within the week, and that's too high a price to pay for honesty.
Let's face it, many older, respected community members indulge or have indulged in occasional recreational drug use. Some may do it once a year, while others once a month. Some did it years ago and simply enjoyed it. Amazingly, most of these members of the community did not end up in intensive care nor develop a life-damaging habit.
During my work in both government and the private sector, I've known lawyers, doctors, actors, teachers, journalists, accountants, government officers and even old-age pensioners to follow a path of 'safe occasional and soft' recreational drug use – a path they often defended as being far less damaging than a regular habit of alcohol or tobacco. Were they nice people? Most certainly! Were they brain addled skeletal, addicted sub-humans? Certainly not! Did they contribute positively to society? Yes indeed.
Yet none of these individuals would risk 'coming out' and declaring their 'sins'- either past or present - in support of 'softer drug' decriminalisation. Not because they don't believe in it, but because the spotlight would be turned on them by the anti-drug coalition, their employers and the law in a way that could potentially ruin their lives.
In any argument where one side practices outside the law, and the other within it, there can be no balance, no fairness and no truth. If the drugs debate is to be fair, the custodians of information must firmly separate the emotional from the rational. Alternatively, emotional and logical arguments should be fostered for both positions in a climate of safety.
Safety however, when it comes to any open declaration of illegal practice is impossible to guarantee. Truthful, honest debate suffers at a time when it's most needed. For the sake of this vital discussion, let's for once try to leave behind the emotive tabloid images of ruined families and lives lost too soon, and compare apples with apples. Without this level playing field, any new policy stance or potential social change will be forever doomed.