Decriminalising Drugs

By January 8, 2020Other

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.

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • JMO says:

    Legalise it, regulate it, tax it. The debate then needs only to focus on the when, the how and the $ amount (for tax and administration).

  • JMO says:

    If people want it they will have it, one way or another. If they are stupid enough to kill themselves with it then let them, and pay some tax to society on the way as part contribution to the social health costs. The dumber you are to take these drugs, then the more tax you pay.

  • Rupert Wyndham says:

    As a teenager, I lived in London. In those far off days, prescribed drugs were dispensed by one pharmacy, namely Boots in Piccadilly. For those of a morbidly curious disposition there was the daily spectacle of druggies ‘mainlining’ in the entrance to the adjoining underground station. Then the gutter press (Daily Mirror in particular) latched on, and started to whip up a storm after it was alleged that one GP (Indian, as it happens – bit of good honest prejudice here) had been over prescribing. In time, this led to the withdrawal of such a legalised prescription option.

    The published estimate of numbers at the time was around 3000 in London. This total, of course, shot up the moment druggies could no longer get their daily fix. One can only reflect that nowadays a count of this magnitude in a large city would be regarded as no problem at all. And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, save for one little postscript. As I recall 60 years later, the doctor was cleared.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Not sure about ice, crack, meth, etc, since they scramble brain and body, but the governments and big pharma should regulate heroin. Used judiciously it is safe, and even if you get addicted you aren’t much at risk if you are able to get professional advice and won’t desperately shoot up with Ajax, talcum powder, strychnine, or whatever cutting agent finds its way into your hit. I would be surprised if regulated heroin was a bigger scourge to society than regulated booze.
    Not that I’ve ever tried heroin, and I’m also a teetotaller, so I could well be talking absolute bollocks.

  • Stu says:

    That is a very good essay Don. An aspect of this which is often overlooked is that if you can’t keep drugs out if jails, what hope have you of achieving that in open society. As was revealed recently with the delayed release from prison of Milton Orkopulos for drug use, drugs are clearly available in the prison system.

    There have been studies that show that the illegality is in fact part of the attraction, even the lifestyle, for some people.

    So, legalise it, manage it, tax it. Evidence from some adventurous localities shows that it is no worse than current practice and mostly much better at harm minimisation.

    Of course all this is dependent on breaking free of the small but influential religious lobby who remain hell bent (pun intended) on forcing their moral views on everyone else.

  • Davo of Thorneside says:

    A psychologist and I briefly debated legalisation one day. His answer: If you legalise it, then you will need more public servants, hospitals and police, and your chance of getting wiped out while drive becomes twice as much.

    • Stu says:

      That has not been the experience in Portugal since they decriminalised drug use in 2001. And there has not been an explosion of immigrants through the honey pot effect. Certainly our current approach does not appear to working well.

  • Karabar says:

    An excellent discourse, that raises many related questions in my mind.
    Do we want to live in a society which is FREE; in which the individual is at liberty to discover his own unique blend of life, liberty, prosperity and happiness? Or do we want to live in a totalitarian society (to which we seem to be attracted more and more) in which the individual is not free to even think?
    Does society have an obligation and a right to control the action of every individual? Where the behaviour of an individual endangers another individual’s pursuit of life and liberty, then most civil people would answer in the affirmative. But where do we draw the line demarking actions that harm others and those that do not?
    Hence we live in what is becoming a police state, where armed government workers are encouraged to meet out punishment for such things as decline to wear a seatbelt or a bicycle helmet. Our society moves ever closer to a police state when the tyranny of the majority levies such restrictions on the individual. Precisely who is endangered?
    A hallmark of the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms. Yet those who propose gun control are oblivious of the statistics which clearly identify the fact that death by firearm is remarkably higher in those ‘gun free zones’.
    Did Prohibition in the USA decrease of increase the consumption of alcohol? There can be no doubt of its effect on the proliferation of organised crime.
    Who benefits from the regulation of drugs? Does the regulation of alcohol today increase or decrease its consumption? It seems to me that it is the misery inflicted by the totalitarian state that leads people to attempt escape by ‘getting high’. In the tightly controlled old Soviet Union and the Eastern Block result in a society of teetotallers?

  • Karabar – Eastern Block – alcoholism was a major problem – close to half the male population drank to oblivion – this may have to do with the life they were living and the engulfing stupidity of the student union in the meeja, and social meeja, legal system, social work, education department – all govt departments – on us.
    Further I recall seeing a open forum on the Aust Brainwashing Corp with a high up police officer who was very good but the mother who lost a daughter let rip at him ending up with “You stupid man – ban all drugs” – zero tolerance. Then there was that hysterical attempt at theropy by Pam Stevenson on Gene Simmons (check it out for an absolute scream to educate everyone on males and females – I though Pam was a long way back and similar to the student union – think what they are saying is smart but made to look stupid) where Gene says if you want to get rid of drugs zero tolerance. Finally Dr John Kimber wrote and interesting letter to the editor in the Advertiser on cannibis or medicinal cannibis – I am not sure which one it was – he was the the head of a surgical unit in Denver who wrote cannibis was a insidious drug which causes hallucinations, violence and out of control behaviour.
    Even though the deaths may be low the trauma and ripping apart of peoples lives is substantial. The one I remember was a health professional who moved interstate, had a child could not work out why there was no money at home and found her partner was shooting meph. She left. Two lives ruined.
    How do you deal with this.

    • Boambee John says:


      “cannibis was a insidious drug which causes hallucinations, violence and out of control behaviour.”

      I have seen reports of research (that makes the connection pretty tenuous) claiming that marihuana use has a high propensity to cause psychoses, including schizophrenia. I would be interested in hearing more details if you know them.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Interesting discussion, Don.

    Is it just coincidental that the big clamp-down on tobacco and its subsequent reduced consumption goes hand in hand with the increase in these drugs that are much more dangerous?

    Nicotine often kills you, but it is a very mild-mannered, civilised and incredibly effective drug.

    I’ve never seen anyone smoke a packet of cigarettes and rush off and do something violent as is happening today on a wildly escalating basis.

    People who needed and used nicotine were often extremely productive types, often living under considerable pressure who worked very hard all their lives and quickly dropped dead from lung cancer just before they were due to collect the pension.

    Yet we were told it cost the country a fortune.

    Tobacco was one of the foundation stones of not just our country, but the whole of Western Civilisation for three centuries and the smart people respected it and realised its worth.

    Now there are much more fashionable, more expensive but dangerous substitutes and we are trying to criminalise tobacco instead.

  • Boxer says:

    Underlying my concern about legalisation of more of the currently illegal drugs is, would this lead to a greater incidence of drug dependency in total?

    It is sometimes expressed to me that “some people are addicts by nature (the implication being that they are weak), so the current high frequency of alcoholism and nicotine addiction would be reduced as some of the latent alcoholics/smokers become heroin addicts, speed freaks or cannabis stoners”. It’s also summarised as “let natural selection take its course”.

    I feel very uneasy about this approach. Of course I can’t answer the opening question and cite journals full of “evidence” to support my concern. But I fear more people would become drug-dependent if a wider variety of drugs was readily available. I wonder how I would have travelled through the 60s and 70s had more than cannabis been within easy reach.

    So cannabis is the harmless one, seems to be the general attitude here.

    In my mind yesterday, I started to go through the list of people I know or knew who have not been killed by cannabis, but who have become severely affected by it, to the point where they become economically, and sometimes socially, quite dysfunctional. It’s quite a long list, and I have lived a conventional middle class existence, part of a loving (boring?) middle class family. My life is very far removed from that of J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy”. The list includes people from their late teens to their sixties. I have experienced loss of close family, not from use of cannabis itself, but from the disorders resulting from heavy addiction. Another one a near miss. It only appears to be benign from a distance.

    The worst aspect of addiction is not what it does to the victim, but what it does to the family. The addict steals and/or bludges off their partner, deprives their kids of resources, rips off their parents, brings violent dealers into the lives of innocent people – any one, or a combination of these problems, plus others. The economic harm, anger, sorrow and grief of this betrayal “turns your blood to stone”. I suspect too many people who wave aside addiction as if it is a problem for addicts alone are unaware of where the real damage lies. Liberalise drug policy with caution, because we don’t even recognise what harm cannabis alone does.

  • bb says:

    One of the problems with drugs is the contradictory information one gets. As you say Don there are drugs that are legal and others that are not. I’m not sure that it is for the benefit of society in general to make them illegal. As someone else commented if we can’t keep the illegal drugs out of the jail is what chance is there to remove it from general society. Organised crime would not want legalisation nor if they are honest would the police or the judiciary. I would like to see it brought back to a health issue which as I understand it was at one time. One dilemma is quality-control of illegal drugs. I read a book some years ago called Freakonomics by Talib. It had a chapter on drugs. He had managed to obtain accounting books for organised drug dealing in New York city. The corner drug dealer is the very low end and does not make enough to earn a living. They will have jobs say in McDonald’s in order to support them while they are trying to make it. On the top of it there are drug lords who make an absolute fortune. So you have large numbers of people wanting to get into the drug trade and very few getting to the top. A bit like the movie business!

  • Boxer says:

    The question boils down to, if supply was legally unrestricted, how much damage would be done by addictive substances? Two examples worth considering:

    The East India Company imported 100s of tonnes of opium per year into China in the mid 19th century, virtually unrestricted, by simply ignoring the Chinese legal prohibition at the time. When the Chinese government tried to clamp down on this, because of the widespread harm that was being caused to the Chinese people, the British Government imposed the import of opium upon China by force in the opium wars. In effect a global drug cartel overruled a national government to meet the demand for opium from the Chinese population. This experience suggests that the point where the market for opium becomes stabilised, that is, the population self-regulates the consumption of an opiate, is a place where you do not want to go. I don’t think the Chinese have forgiven us for that, so expect revenge to be served cold.

    The current prescription opiate crisis in the USA (see the Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, who writes from his personal experience) is the result of legal distribution of an opiate product. Again, the capacity for self harm amongst a population seems to be intolerable. The economic impact upon the nation of self-regulated drug consumption may be worse than the cost of imperfect prohibition.

    The results do depend, of course, upon the drug in question. Alcohol prohibition did not work in the USA in the 1920s and alcohol is not as addictive as an opiate. We are still struggling with a form of alcohol prohibition in northern Australia, where self regulation of grog consumption is resulting in catastrophic harm.

    There are social factors at play too. It is easier for the well-off middle class and above to indulge in free thinking and libertarian principles, but the consequences of these liberal ideas have very different impacts upon less well-off social groups. The 1960s sexual revolution has had no impact on the wealthy, but single mother households are more common in lower socio-economic parts of our society, and there is are social and economic costs arising from this.

  • Reg says:

    The BoM has announced that 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record. It was also Australia’s driest year on record. Not surprisingly 2019-20 is NSW’s worst bush fire season on record. Canberra, where you live, recorded it highest temperature on record (44 degrees), and is now also experiencing its worst air quality on record (from the said worst bush fires on record).
    Don, no one cares what you think about legalised drugs. Everyone is waiting to read your first post on the bush fires and climate change. Maybe you could illustrate your post with some current photos of Lilli Pilli on the South Coast, where your old holiday house used to be.
    Start your post “Australia is a nation that has always had bushfires but ……” and then just let it rip.

    • spangled drongo says:


      Do you seriously believe that our current drought is the worst evah!

      Read and learn:

      “Australia’s 100 years of instrumental weather records does not paint the full picture, said University of Newcastle Associate Professor Anthony Kiem.”

      “I’m not interested in scaring people or sensationalising the issue. But you have a false sense of security if you only look at the instrumental records…”

      “In one century in the eleven-hundreds 70 per cent of the years are classified as drought, including a straight run of 39 drought years in a row,” said Mr Kiem, a senior lecturer and researcher on climate impacts to Australia’s long term climate cycles.

      Try naming one thing that is happening today, climate-wise, that hasn’t happened in the not too distant past.

      How hard is it for you to work out that if past droughts and bushfires occurred during positive IODs and this current one is doing likewise, this is normal stuff.

      What isn’t normal is a countryside with a record number of tree-changers who have been encouraging record tree growth and preventing fuel reduction for many decades.

      IOW, the so called green “cure” for your CAGW theory is what’s contributing enormously to our current problem.

  • Kneel says:

    It’s curious to see most peoples reaction to a drug addiction:

    Caffeine: “don’t talk to him until he’s had at least 2 cups of coffee!”
    Nicotine: “filthy habit, you should give up”
    Alcohol: “you’re sick, it’s not your fault”
    Illegals: “filthy drugo, not worth my time”

    Yet they are all addictive to some degree, although most people are unaware that they are addicted to caffeine. If you drink coffee and think you’re not addicted, try going 48 hours with no caffeine – if you get a headache, drink a coffee, and if it goes away after a few minutes, you’re addicted.

    It does not appear to be based on harm to the individual (as above, heroin is usually less physically damaging than smoking), nor on social harm (alcohol causes more issues than, say, weed), nor how addictive it is (nicotine is more addictive than heroin).

    My view is to make them all (the illegals) legal and restricted same as alcohol – only those who have reached their majority can purchase or consume them, if you are addicted it is a medical issue, if you try to by-pass the legal pathways, you get hammered so hard most people won’t bother (a la alcohol and tobacco at present), and operating heavy machinery etc under the influence is verboten. Of course, add tax as appropriate – based on, say, harm to society and individual health (so alcohol is more heavily taxed than, say, weed).

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      I tried giving up coffee. No effect.
      I tried giving up alcohol. No effect.
      I was still told I was an arsehole.
      Somehow, I don’t think that’s the answer.

  • Andy McNABB says:

    Addiction can hide in the recesses of the mind for a long time. I had a colleague who was an alcoholic until he was 30. His loving wife eventually got him to AA who were able to get him clean, and he remained clean or many years (and still is). He did confidentially tell me that should two doctors confirm that he has a terminal disease and has three months to live, he will consume a bottle or two of scotch per day and probably die of alcohol poisoning.

    I have a number of ex smoking friends who have expressed the same sentiments. That is, despite not having smoked for decades, should they be diagnosed as terminal, they intend to buy a container of cigarettes and smoke themselves to death.

    I served for 20 years in the Australian Defence Force. It was the worst kept secret that a number of people, some of high rank, were functioning alcoholics. It was quite common for some to have a little bottle of brandy in their second drawer, with a few breath freshener sprays. Also, the Messes were open for lunch and quite a lot of alcohol was taken with meals.

    At the end of the day, there was quite a push at the entry to the Mess. At 2200 hours the Mess Steward was stood down, and someone took over the bar. Many a raucous night was spent in the Mess, often until 0200 hours, most nights. And YES, I was there for quite a few nights.

    The Mess allowed TABS, which were settled (quite substantial amounts) on payday. Bar prices were considerably lower than hotel prices. It was pretty much a male thing. Females were tolerated, but they felt uncomfortable, and departed early.

    The military has always had a long and deep association with alcohol (and tobacco). It’s simply part of life there. Messes are decorated with past honours, and these are discussed/ toasted over and over.

    Low level consumers or abstainers were often scorned.

    It was interesting to read that younger servicemen and women have recognized the very substantial consumption of alcohol in the Defence Forces and many younger leaders in units have re-arranged opening hours to three nights a week.

  • Ron The Bear says:

    If users could be trusted not to harm anyone else as a result of their substance abuse, I’d agree with the author’s conclusion. It’s not my business to interfere in self-regulation of others’ own health. But users get behind the wheel, they operate machinery, they suffer psychotic episodes; others become casualties of their habits. I could never forgive a drug user for destroying someone I care about through mental impairment; hence I become a lifelong victim, with the possibility of further victims. Once the door is opened, it can never be closed; common sense says to leave it shut.

  • CameronH says:

    I find it amazing that the same people who demonize tobacco, the least socially harmful drug, are pushing for the decriminalization of mind and personality altering drugs that cause immense problems within our society. Another issue is with our taxpayer funded socialized health system. The poor long suffering taxp0ayer will need to fund all of the social and health problems that will attend the use of these drugs.

    I would have less problem with their decriminalization if the individual users were excluded from accessing public funded services nassociated with the problems they suffer as a consequence of their use of these drugs.

  • (Dips toe in cautiously*)
    Decriminalise and regulate LIGHTLY.
    Because Criminalising and Regulating drugs has been such a roaring bloody success, hasn’t it?

    (*Winston is a refugee from another site that has been over run by idiots, ferals, Collectivists etc.)

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