This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia on 22 September, 2015
The author Alex Wodak is the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and a former Board member of SMART Recovery Australia.
The police have not, and cannot, cure our addiction to drugs. It’s time Australia treated drug addiction as a health problem and allocated resources accordingly.
Drivers in the outback used to sometimes see warnings advising them to select their rut carefully as they would be in that rut for the next 50km.
Australia, like most other countries, has been in the same drug policy rut for the last half century. Along with many other countries, based on three UN treaties, certain drugs have been deemed unacceptable and people who used them punished severely.
Our politicians like to say that Australia has a “balanced” approach to drug policy even though our nine governments allocated 9% of the $1.7bn spent in response to drugs in 2009/10 to prevention, 21% to drug treatment, 2% to harm reduction and a whopping 66% to law enforcement.
Winston Churchill said “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Over the last half century the drug market has expanded with increasing production, consumption, availability, purity and numbers of types of new drugs, including ice. The only aspect of drugs that has decreased is price. Drugs are much cheaper than they used to be.
Over the last half century Australia has had an increase in deaths, disease, crime and corruption. Some countries, like Mexico, have also experienced mass violence.
The threshold policy step required for Australia is to redefine drugs as primarily a health and social problem. And the most important action required of government is investing in drug treatment to improve its capacity, quality, range and flexibility.
Current funding for drug treatment is estimated to be only half of that needed. The quality of drug treatment must be raised to the same standard as any other health services. We should provide a range of options from minimal to maximal. Many people with drug problems improve on their own but some need a lot of help. For those with very severe problems for whom no treatment has yet worked, we need to be able to prescribe supervised dexamphetamine, a drug used medically to treat conditions such as narcolepsy.
All drug users seeking help matter but some matter even more to the community than others. 70% of methamphetamine users consume ice less than once a month. Few of this group will cause problems to themselves or others. The small minority of methamphetamine users who consume prodigious quantities account disproportionately for crime and probably also recruit most of the novices. So this group is critical for future growth of the market.
We need an effective way of dealing with severely dependent, treatment-resistant people seeking help and in most cases this will mean a so-called “agonist” pharmacological treatment. This means an approach resembling the effective methadone treatment used for heroin users or nicotine replacement used for smokers trying to quit.
We cannot police, arrest, imprison our way out of the drug problem.
A wide variety of “non-agonist” pharmacological treatments have been tried but without success. Research to find a “methadone” for stimulants has been made very difficult. Some research been done, but we need more. We also need better agents than we have had and recent developments are encouraging. These are longer acting and are active when taken by mouth but inert if injected.
It’s time Australia started reducing the emphasis on criminal sanctions. Even senior police now say this. It’s time to raise the threshold quantities that trigger charges and time to reduce the severity of penalties. Difficult as this may be, it’s time to start trying to increase that part of the illicit drug market which is regulated. And time to increase harm reduction including distributing clean pipes and establishing drug consumption rooms.
The drugs industry is remarkably profitable. In a British study of a drug trafficking organisation, profit accounted for 26%-58% of turnover. The common perception is “teach a man to fish and he can eat for a day: teach a man to sell drugs and he can pay for a Ferrari by Christmas”. But while people at the top of drug trafficking organisations earn prodigious amounts of money, people at the bottom earn very little.
In response to this reality, more countries are adopting harm reduction every year. It’s much cheaper and much more effective. In 1985 Australia adopted “harm minimisation” as our official national drug policy and this more flexible approach helped Australia to keep HIV under control. More countries are becoming interested in extending reducing the harm from drugs to reducing the harm from drug policy.
This trend started in western Europe with the Netherlands (1970s), Switzerland (1990s) and Portugal (2001) redefining drugs as primarily a health and social problem. But this decade, change is starting to happen in the Americas. Two states in the USA started to tax and regulate cannabis. Another two US states and Uruguay, Geneva, Jamaica are committed to starting to tax and regulate cannabis. New Zealand began regulating some new psychoactive substances in 2013. The United Nations is hosting a general assembly special session on drugs in New York next April because of the growing view that the area is in crisis.
Read full article: The Guardian Australia