There has been a lot of exaggeration in the media about weather conditions, but I think it might be better to leave the whole subject until the fires are out and we take a deep collective breath. Instead I’m writing on a subject that I have wrestled with for most of my adult life, the decriminalising of ‘drugs’, meaning the illegal ones.
These drugs, cocaine, heroin, LSD, Ice and all the new ones with initials, are not available for legal sale, and it is an offence to possess them. Cannabis is going through a slow decriminalising process. Alcohol is legal, and indeed the basis of substantial industries, yet its toxic effects are well known. About six thousand Australians die each year because of alcohol, compared with the fifty thousand who die from cancer. About twenty thousand die from diseases associated with tobacco use. Road crashes? About 1200 or so, depending on the year. Marijuana deaths: virtually none, though cannabis is most probably a cause of some road crashes. Heroin-related deaths are tiny. Heroin has a very bad name, even among drug-users, and for excellent reasons. Cocaine won’t kill you, unless you have a colossal amount of it.
It is really only in the last century that the state began to regulate drugs. An international meeting in 1909 decided that there should be a ‘war’ on the growth, production and use of opiates. Before then both heroin and cocaine were available, not especially expensive, and existed in brand names. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, two important ingredients for the first marketed bottles of Coca Cola were caffeine and cocaine, the last of which was removed in 1903. Now taverns were generally regulated, along with the importation of alcohol. The experience of Prohibition in the USA, where an amendment to the Constitution 1920 banned alcohol before another amendment in 1933 removed the ban, was an object lesson to every nation state in the world. It was an object lesson whose deep message, however, was hard to implement. Yes, the notion that alcohol should be banned made no sense in most countries. But the extension of the message, that banning something that most people either like or don’t object to, has not caught on.
What we presently have, as I see it, is a strange mixture of rules and practices. Some mind- and mood-altering drugs are legal, some need a doctor’s prescription, some are frowned upon today, though once almost universal, like smoking tobacco, some are illegal. The regulation of drugs has encouraged the growth of two large industries. One comprises what are known as the ‘drug cartels’, organisations in various countries busy with growing the ingredients needed for illicit drugs, like the poppies for opiates, producing the concentrates, shipping them to other countries, finding distributors who find sellers, and defending their patches against other like organisations. Their other opponents are the second great industry — the regulators, police, border control officers, churches, governments and their partners. The growth of these industries has been going on in a steady way since the end of the second world war.
Every few weeks there is another media story about a new (sometimes record-breaking!) ‘drug bust’ showing us how vigilant our defenders are. At the same time, about half of all Australians have used an illicit drug at some point in their lives. I tried cannabis one evening when I was in my thirties, and found I couldn’t play charades after the drug hit me. Even worse, I drove home, conscious that I was driving slowly and nervously. I didn’t have it again, probably because I was and remain someone who wants control over myself, and not the abandonment of controls. For the same reason, and although I used to enjoy wine, I have only been only drunk to the point of vomiting twice, once in 1954 (after the university results came out) and once in 1965, trying to match a Pom in the south of France in drinking the local vin ordinaire (he won).
Enough of that. All these data about the consumption of drugs are rather squiffy, because they rely on self-attribution, and are probably under-estimates. One source claimed that 3.1 million Australians used illicit drugs in that year, 2016. How did they know? Another survey. A more interesting finding, from yet another survey, is that illicit drug use is much more common among those aged 15 to 34 than it is among those older. One inference is that taking an illegal substance is a rite of passage, as smoking cigarettes was when I was young. Later on, with a more senior job, a family, and a mortgage, there are more important priorities.
Nonetheless, the evidence is clear enough. A lot of Australians have taken illicit drugs, and survive. Another interesting finding seems to be that the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs is second to cannabis as a perceived problem, and my contacts in the health business say that it is a real problem for us all, since this abuse costs taxpayers a great deal each year. How much? There is no reliable estimate.
What should we or anyone do about it? There are several organisations that want to decriminalise the illicit drugs, among them Australia21. From time to time a backbencher will propose a change, but governments push the issue to the side. All the advice from the public service departments that have a role in the regulation of drugs will warn ministers that it will be dangerous to go down this path. Foreign Affairs and Trade will say that Australia is bound up in treaties of various kinds. Border Control will point to its successes, Health to the deleterious effects of Ice (which are real), and so on. There are thousands of jobs at stake here, too. In the Prohibition era the joke was that Prohibition was kept in place through the partnership of’ ‘the Bootleggers and the Baptists’.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that a similar unconscious partnership has developed all over the Western world between the cartels, who also have lots of jobs at stake as well as billions to keep making. and the regulators. They both have the same goal: keep things as they are. Yes, there will be drug busts, but if three million Australians have used an illicit drug in the past year, then there is a big and busy market just the same, and we are a wealthy lot.
I am in favour of a slow but steady decriminalising of these drugs. There will be a lot of opposition, and the move will require a bottom-up approach with a brave minister or two, because to do so would involve the States and Territories as well as the Commonwealth. I think the time has come. If we are to take drugs seriously, then we should consider banning beer, wine and spirits. Imagine the outcry if that were proposed. But what is the point of regulation? Isn’t it to reduce harm to the citizens?
If we are not even prepared to consider the whole issue as a spectrum, then not doing anything is just a helpless cry that it’s all too hard.
I think we can do better than that, a lot better. But it won’t happen overnight. Any serious discussion will deal with the myths and legends of the drug world, for example, that smoking cannabis will lead inevitably to heroin addiction and death. As always, the more good information and the more good education, the better.