Ten things you should know about drug prohibition
1. Drug prohibition doesn’t work. During the last half century, almost every country in the world signed three United Nations drug treaties committing these countries to minimise the recreational use of specified drugs. Almost every country expanded their police drug squads, rained gold bars on drug law enforcement and kept on increasing the severity of penalties for drug offences. What was the result? Global heroin, cocaine and cannabis production and consumption continued to soar while world heroin production doubled in the last 10 years.
The number of different types of illicit drugs continued to expand and the number of countries reporting serious drug problems increased steadily. Drug law enforcement is supposed to make street drugs more expensive and less concentrated but the global price of heroin and cocaine fell by more than 80% between 1981 and 2002 while the purity of street drugs kept rising. Our prisons are choked full. At great cost, we keep building even more. Prohibition has made the difficult job of keeping HIV under control even harder. If this is success, what would failure look like?
2. Prohibition cannot work. Prohibition means that a kilogram of heroin costing $1,000 in Bangkok sells for $300,000 in New York, Sydney, London or Amsterdam. The more funding authorities allocate to drug law enforcement and the more severe the penalties are made, the higher the price of heroin. In the battle between politics and economics, economics always wins eventually.
3. If we cannot keep drugs out of prisons, we can’t keep drugs out of our cities or suburbs. No one likes to admit that some illicit drugs somehow or other always get into our prisons. But they do. Demand creates supply.
4. One of the costs we pay for drug prohibition is corruption of our police (and possibly other officials). Of course, the overwhelming majority of our police are honourable. But the more we rely on drug law enforcement to control the drug problem, the more police corruption we will have. The Commonwealth Costigan Royal Commission (1985) and Royal Commissions in Queensland (1987), NSW (1997), Western Australia (2004) all found substantial police corruption linked to drug trafficking.
5. Drug prohibition leads to more dangerous drugs driving out less dangerous drugs. The prohibition of opium in Asia half a century ago stopped old men from becoming constipated and also wasting their family’s precious savings. But when opium was banned, it was soon replaced by heroin. Instead of old men smoking opium, we now have young (and sexually active) young men injecting heroin. This set the scene for a public health catastrophe with HIV linked to drug injecting now threatening half the world’s population. Prohibition encourages drug traffickers to favour more concentrated drugs. By occupying smaller volumes, more concentrated drugs are less likely to be detected. But the more concentrated the drugs are, the higher the risk of a fatal overdose when injected.
6. The prohibition of illicit drugs has been as big a failure as alcohol prohibition was in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s. Any benefits that alcohol prohibition may have had were more than compensated by a spectacular increase in violence and organised crime. Drug traffickers cannot go to lawyers to resolve their disputes. So, as we saw in Underbelly, they just reach for their guns. If you like the Al Capones of this world and think they deserve to be extremely rich, then drug prohibition is for you.
7. The political elites know that drug prohibition doesn’t work and never will work. But they also know that drug prohibition sounds like it ought to work. Ever since Richard Nixon launched a ‘War on Drugs’ and easily won an election in 1971, politicians all over the world from political parties across the spectrum haven’t been able to help themselves from trying to out do their opponents in drug war extremism. After all, as some politicians say ‘you can fool some of the people all of the time and they’re just the people we are looking for’.
8. Drug prohibition is an expensive way of making a bad problem worse. Resources allocated to high cost-low impact customs, police, courts and prisons are then not available for low cost-high impact health and social programs. Scarce police resources wasted on sniffer dogs to detect cannabis in Nimbin are then not available to solve violent and property crime taking place in your suburb. Instead of criminalising cannabis, taxing the drug would help governments raise revenue while reducing spending.
9. Drug prohibition has made the world a more dangerous and unstable place. At any time, there are about half a dozen countries where the drug traffickers and government are hard to tell apart. These countries include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. About 10,000 people have been killed in Mexico in the War Against Drugs since 2007 including 1,000 army and police. Many major terrorist organisations now earn millions of dollars a year from trafficking drugs.
10. Drug prohibition is not going to last much longer. The fragile international consensus on drug policy was ruptured at a major drug policy conference at the United Nations in Vienna in March when 26 countries (including Australia) made a clear commitment to harm reduction. Herbert Stein, Nixon’s advisor on economics used to say, ‘things that cannot go on forever, don’t’. When the US repealed alcohol prohibition in 1933, each state and county in the country was free to decide what they wanted to do. Some kept alcohol prohibition but most chose to tax and regulate alcohol. When free to choose, some countries will want to continue drug prohibition. But most will choose to regard drugs as primarily a matter for health and social interventions. The threshold reform of the international system will be allowing each country to choose its own drug policy according to its circumstances.
Although prohibition is dying, the next global arrangement has not yet been born.
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