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Drug Lore, The Questioning of Our Current Drug Law



The Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform


1.1 In Canberra in 1993 a meeting of parliamentarians and other members of the community was held, all of whom shared a concern that the current drug policies in Australia did not seem to be working. It was felt that there was at least a need to consider alternative approaches to illicit drug use and to reduce the unacceptably high levels of social, economic and health problems associated with the prohibition of certain drugs in Australia.

1.2 This meeting gave birth to the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform. Medical problems associated with illicit drug use were reviewed by Dr Alex Wodak, Director of Alcohol and Drug Services, St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. Ian Mathews, one of the authors of Drugs Policy: Fact, Fiction and the Future, outlined the high economic costs of illicit drug law enforcement while Mr Michael Moore, MLA, The Honourable Ann Symonds, MLC, The Honourable Alannah MacTiernan, MLC, The Honourable Jean McLean, MLC, and Mr Jim Snow, MP, reviewed the political obstacles facing drug law reform. The need for legislative reform was reviewed by His Honour Justice Michael Kirby, then President of the Supreme Court of NSW. This parliamentary group agreed on the need for a national focus to develop a fresh approach to illicit drugs which was more effective than the policy based on prohibition which Australia had pursued for several decades.

1.3 All of these participants at the meeting had one thing in common; they had been directly involved in assisting constituents, parents, families or ordinary members of the community to develop more realistic ways of coping with illicit drug use. They all had at one time been supporters of prohibition. But research into the benefits and costs of illicit drug law enforcement, every day contact with drug users and their families and the growing evidence of serious unwanted side effects of prohibition, such as police corruption, made them realise that not only had prohibition failed but present approaches could never be made to work with even stricter penalties, further expansion of drug squads or simply throwing yet more money at the problem. The group was convinced that it was time at least to consider whether or not there were any alternative options that might be more effective.

1.4 In the early 1980's The Hon Dr Neal Blewitt, MP, Commonwealth Minister for Health, facilitated the introduction of needle exchange programs in Australia despite considerable political opposition. Faced with the possibility of an uncontrolled epidemic of HIV among injecting drug users in Australia, Dr Blewitt supported the adoption of harm reduction as Australia's national drug policy in 1985. This approach, coupled with an explicit national education program on safe sex, contained a public health problem which has been uncontrolled in countries where bold action of this kind was not taken. It is this level of foresight, rationality and courage which is needed from our politicians and community leaders today if we are to avert the growing crises that have arisen from the harm maximisation policies of prohibition.

The National Charter for Drug Law Reform

1.5 In 1993 the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform laid out a set of principles in a National Charter for Drug Law Reform (See Appendix B). This Charter has been signed by nearly 100 serving and some retired parliamentarians representing every state and territory legislature in Australia, as well as Senators and Members of the Federal Parliament. Almost every political party as well as Independent members are represented. The Charter has also been endorsed by many former parliamentarians, eminent members of religious bodies and leaders of the medical and legal professions, academics, health and community workers, and celebrities in journalism and the media. The Parliamentary Group holds meetings in different states or territories several times a year. The convenors of the Group are Mr Michael Moore, MLA and The Honourable Ann Symonds, MLC.

The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

1.6 The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation was formed in April 1994 to actively involve the many members who endorsed the National Charter for Drug Law Reform. This body, now incorporated, has become the umbrella organisation for parliamentarians, lawyers, academics, health professionals, researchers, scientists, criminologists, drug users and members of the community who have an interest in identifying more effective ways of reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use. Within a year of its inception, branches were set up in Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT. Parents, siblings and friends of those who have either died through illicit drug use or are severely affected by illicit drug use have formed the group Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. Lawyers groups have been convened in order to provide informed advice about technical problems relating to Australia's drug laws in Australia and the International Treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

1.7 The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation produces research papers and educational material for members and acts as a clearing house for information on drug policies from countries around the world. The Foundation maintains a high national and international profile in the public debate of the contentious issue of drug law reform.

Australian inquiries into illicit drug use and control

1.8 In Australia since 1971, there have been at least 25 inquiries into aspects of illicit drug use and the associated health, legal, economic and law enforcement problems. All but a few of these inquiries have recommended changes to the current prohibition policies and most proposed a move to harm reduction. Even the Williams Royal Commission Report (1979), although arguing for the continuation of prohibition with an emphasis on law enforcement, recommended that policy with regard to cannabis be reconsidered with a view to reform in about 10 years if the situation had not improved.

The Inquiries


Senate Select Committee on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse (Marriott)

The evidence is clear that drug abuse in Australia is mainly a problem within the individual and therefore greater emphasis should be placed on the treatment of an illness rather than punishment for a crime. p. 3.


Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare Report: Drug Problems in Society - An Intoxicated Society? (Baume)

The Committee recommends: That the Commonwealth and the Sates enact cannabis legislation which recognises the differences between opiate narcotics and cannabis and their health effects and in the criminal impact on users and the community. p. 164.


New South Wales Joint Parliamentary Committee on Drugs (Durick)

Examined the extent of drug problems and reviewed the performance of drug treatment programs in NSW.


South Australian Royal Commission into the Non Medical Use of Drugs (Sackville)

If [the lawful provision of heroin] were done, we envisage that heroin could be used in the treatment of addiction, but only in very rare cases and under the closest supervision. In our view these steps will help to "demystify" heroin and challenge its magical reputation.

p. 315.

New South Wales Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (Woodward)

Sparked by the disappearance of Donald Mackay in Griffith due to his revelations about large scale marijuana growing in the Riverina area.


Further Report of New South Wales Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (Woodward)

Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drugs (Williams)

The Commission recommended tighter law enforcement and better co-ordination extending prohibitionist policies. With reference to cannabis it also recommended reviewing the laws if the policies had not proved effective. "...[A]t the expiration of ten years the legal prohibition against cannabis be reviewed by Commonwealth and State

Governments acting in concert." p. E269.

"If the Commission is proposing a policy that is not novel the question that inevitably must be answered is why has it not worked before?" p. D14.


New South Wales Committee of Inquiry into the Legal Provision of Heroin and other possible methods of diminishing crime associated with the supply and use of heroin. (Rankin)

The Committee felt that methadone was an appropriate drug for opioid maintenance for most clients. However, the Committee did consider that heroin maintenance may be appropriate for:

" ... the comparatively small group of hard-core dependents who, after repeated attempts at seeking improvement through methadone maintenance and other forms of treatment, remain firmly addicted to heroin ..." p. 34.

Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare (Walters)

Undertook a detailed analysis of the use of prescription drugs in Australia.


Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (Stewart)

A joint inquiry of Federal, New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland Governments.


Royal Commission into the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union (Costigan)

Uncovered links between the union and criminal groups involved in heroin and other illicit drug trafficking.

Western Australian Select Committee Inquiry (Hill)

Reviewed treatment services in Western Australia, in particular the relationship between the statutory and non-government services, training and educational programs for health and welfare workers.


Committee of Review into Drug and Alcohol Services in New South Wales (Kerr)

This Report echoed the Rankin Report and recommended that heroin be considered in the treatment of patients for analgesic purposes. p. 128.

Report on the Non-Government Drug and Alcohol Services System (Lansley, Hayes and Storer)

Investigated non-government drug treatment agencies in NSW with the object of demonstrating the special characteristics and attributes of the non-government services system.


Report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the National Crime Authority - Drugs, Crime and Society (Cleeland)

Investigated the policy consequences associated with the prohibition of drugs in Australia. In relation to police corruption under drug prohibition, this report stated:

"Our wonder in this society is not that we have got bent coppers, it is that we have got straight ones." pp. 82 - 83.


Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct (Fitzgerald)

Investigation into police corruption in Queensland stated that illegal prostitution and illicit drugs were the key issues in police corruption in Queensland.


ACT Select Committee on HIV, Illegal Drugs and Prostitution - Second Interim Report: Feasibility Study on the Controlled Availability of Opioids (Moore)

The Committee accepts the international evidence that would suggest that prohibition policies (even where those policies include the death penalty) have not reduced the illegal supply of opioids, have not reduced the number of people taking drugs nor have they been effective in getting people to stop taking drugs. p. 1.

ACT Select Committee on HIV, Illegal Drugs and Prostitution - Third Interim Report: Marijuana and Other Illegal Drugs (Moore)

Investigated the properties of marijuana and recommended legislative changes. Recommended that the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use not be an offence at law.


Criminal Justice Committee Report on Cannabis and the Law in Queensland (O'Regan, QC)

The law must have a basic level of public support. As has frequently been shown, laws which are out of step with community values are rarely respected, or effective. p. x.

Report of the Task Force on Cannabis, National Drug Strategy (Ali & Christie)

Investigation into the properties of cannabis and recommend future policy. Policies to discourage cannabis use should be shown to be effective or be changed. p. 21.


South Australian Legislative Council Report of the Select Committee on the Control and Illegal Use of Drugs of Dependence (Pfitzner)

Inquired into the control and use of drugs of dependence. The Select Committee recommends that South Australia adopt a regulated availability (regulation) model for cannabis laws.

Report of the Task Force on Drug Abuse in Western Australia Protecting the Community (Daube)

Redefined the term harm' as that caused by the taking of any illicit drug. Argued for continued emphasis on law enforcement. One of the few Committees favouring further prohibitionist policies.

Royal Commission in to the New South Wales Police Service - Interim Report

Investigation into police corruption in New South Wales. Stated that alternative strategies to drug prohibition were needed.


Report of the ACT Heroin Pilot Task Force (Waller)

Investigate the community concerns about the proposed heroin trial in the ACT. The Heroin Pilot Task Force recommends that the ACT Government proceed to Pilot 1 of a clinical testing of the efficacy of heroin prescription as an additional maintenance treatment option.

Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council (Penington)

An intensive investigation into illicit drugs and advising on how Victoria should tackle the problem. The Council came to the common view that changes were necessary to policies, legislation and services if Victoria is to effectively contain the problems, and have the capacity, in time, to reduce the harm being caused to our community by drugs. If society is unwilling to consider change, many more individuals and families will be adversely affected in the future. p. 1.

1.9 In the most recent Report, that of the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council, chaired by Professor David Penington in 1996, Professor Penington commented that the Advisory Council members had very diverse views initially but at the conclusion of their deliberations, unanimously supported all of the recommendations. These proposed a move away from prohibition and repeal of laws covering personal use of cannabis.

The Drug War: An exercise in futility

Prohibition and the health of the community

1.10 During the last few years, an increasing number of influential and well respected community leaders in Australia have publicly expressed doubts about the effectiveness of illicit drug law enforcement. This has happened in many other western countries also. Where only a few years ago, advocates of drug policy reform were few in number and generally relatively unknown, calls for reform now come from senior police officers, leading politicians from across the political spectrum and from ordinary members of the community, such as mothers and fathers worried about the future of their children.

1.11 The community has been shaken deeply by revelations of serious police corruption linked to illicit drugs. Some have begun to ask why lessons learnt from developing effective policies to reduce harm associated with drugs like alcohol and tobacco cannot be extended to illicit drugs. Deaths from drug overdose have been increasing in Australia and many other countries for the last few years. Hepatitis C is now spreading rapidly among injecting drug users. At a time of major concern about public expenditure in Australia, illicit drug law enforcement costs the nation about half a billion dollars a year but brings few identifiable dividends. Yet, while a high-cost low-benefit policy is allowed to continue, valuable community institutions are cut: with hospitals and hospital wards closed, universities trimmed and roads left unrepaired because of a need to reduce public expenditure.

1.12 The members of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation do not condone the use of mood altering substances, whether they be illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine or licit drugs such as alcohol or tobacco. In recent years, Australia has made some headway with legal drugs which are available under a system of controlled regulation. These drugs are now used less in the community and they are also used less harmfully. In the case of illicit drugs, controlled availability has been recommended as a more effective approach. Controlled availability means allowing government clinics to assess drug users and prescribe and dispense drugs like heroin to carefully selected individuals based on the successful model of methadone treatment. The parliamentary members were keen to find out whether international experts attending the Hobart conference would be able to shed any light on any methods of reducing harm from illicit drugs. The critical issue is to find an approach which does not condone illicit drugs or increase their use but which at the same time can undermine the black market.

1.13 Some argue that cannabis has many serious and harmful properties which justify a system of prohibition. The side effects of many drugs which can be bought freely over a pharmacy counter, however, are much more severe than cannabis. Should these drugs also be banned? Even a common drug like aspirin can cause death; yet there are still no deaths attributed to cannabis in the scientific literature. Cannabis side effects are relatively minimal by comparison to alcohol or tobacco. Although some suggest that this indicates the need for caution lest we repeat the same mistake made with legal drugs, the real question is whether or not our current laws minimise the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. Where side effects have been identified with cannabis, these are usually confined to heavy users. Even when harmful side effects of cannabis are clear cut, it remains to be shown that these are decreased by strict law enforcement.

1.14 Others have argued that easing the laws on cannabis use would "bring another drug on to the market". But this drug, like so many illicit drugs, is already on the market. It is very easy to produce and is readily available under our current policies. Professor David Penington quoted a witnesses appearing before the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council as saying that " it is easier and faster to get cannabis than it is to order a pizza."

Prohibition and the increase in drug trafficking and use

1.15 The national and international policies of prohibition have failed to suppress or slow down the illicit drug supply in Australia, even though we put enormous financial and legal resources at the disposal of law enforcement authorities. It is difficult to estimate exactly how much Australia spends on illicit drug law enforcement each year, but D J Collins and H M Lapsley estimated that $258 million was spent in 1988 on illicit drug law enforcement alone. This figure was recently revised in the National Drug Strategy, Monograph 30, to be between $300 and $400 million for 1996. With regard to overall costs of prohibition however, the Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the National Crime Authority, chaired by Mr Peter Cleeland, MP, estimated an expenditure of over $1 billion a year on prohibition in 1989. Sydney academic, Dr Robert Marks considers that the Cleeland Report was conservative and put the costs of prohibition in the year 1987-88 at $1.5 billion. Even without a firm idea of the exact costs of prohibition, one can safely assume that they are enormous as well as counter-productive.

1.16 Prohibition also has a lot of unwanted side effects. While the illicit drug trade thrives and the use of drugs increases, the profits go into the hands of the big drug dealers and traffickers. Money that could be spent on our health and education systems is wasted on futile efforts to restrict the supply of illicit drugs. Sadly, these efforts never seem to get anywhere. More phones are tapped. More bank accounts kept under surveillance. More corrupt police are detected. International terrorist organisations seem to depend on the income they can make so easily from shifting drugs around the world. Are there any other tax payer funded programs in Australia which have so consistently demonstrated such high costs and such limited benefit yet escaped the severe scrutiny by the Federal Parliamentary Estimates Committees and the state and federal razor gangs?

Prohibition and the Criminal Justice System

1.17 Prohibition increases the burden on the criminal justice system. His Honour Justice Michael Kirby, now of the High Court of Australia, has indicated his belief that over two thirds of all prisoners in New South Wales prisons are incarcerated for some drug related offence.

1.18 It is unlikely that this figure would vary greatly in other states. For each person incarcerated, substantial sums are spent on making the arrest, charging the offender, preparing the case for court, operating the court system, and if the offender is found guilty, incarcerating the prisoner. For every prisoner behind bars, there is often a family without a breadwinner and a child without a parent. Illicit drug use is mainly associated with property crime, but there are also some cases which involve violent crime.

1.19 Australia's commitment to prohibition has held us back from implementing community policing which generally is regarded as a more effective approach to law enforcement. If we were able to achieve a "drug free society" we should have been able to keep drugs out of our prisons by now. But we are not. What chance has a country like Australia, with our vast coastline, got of stopping illicit drugs from entering our country if we can't even keep drugs out of our prisons?
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