Talking Point: Beware the futility of the war on drugs

By Published On: June 22, 2021Categories: Cannabis

From The Mercury

The demand for drugs will never diminish and removing some traffickers and product from the streets will only create an opportunity for others to fill the gap, says GREG BARNS.

INSANITY is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

While this pithy and accurate summary of the stupidity of humanity is oft used (wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein, but in fact penned by mystery story writer Rita Mae Brown) it loses none of its punch. And nowhere is the observation more compelling than in the absurd, expensive and utterly futile policy pursued by governments on drugs.

Here are two examples. Recently the Australian Federal Police and the marketing-driven Prime Minister Scott Morrison boasted about smashing drug rings and other international criminal activity. Then last week this newspaper and other media outlets in Australia were reporting the increase in demand for cocaine.

While Mr Morrison and the AFP puff their chests out about the dangers of taking drugs and likelihood of getting caught, all that removing some traffickers and product from the streets does is create a brilliant opportunity for others to fill the gap. The demand for drugs never diminishes, and now there are market opportunities for new players or existing syndicates to pick up the unmet demand.

On the issue of cocaine, why is there any surprise that this drug is being democratised, as it were? Once a favourite drug of lawyers, medicos, business types and others with plenty of spare coin, cocaine is now available to those with less income.

No amount of mindless sloganeering about the supposed evils of drugs (a favourite phrase of judges and magistrates when they sentence in drug cases but like water off the proverbial duck’s back to nearly everyone in the community) will stop the rise of cocaine. And, irrespective of the amount of taxpayer funds and resources thrown at “law enforcement”, there is no drop in supply.

If the war on drugs, as it has been called since US President Richard Nixon coined the term for political advantage in the late 1960s, was designed to reduce the prevalence of drugs in developed world societies, and the supply from developing world nations from Colombia to Afghanistan, then there is only word to describe it — fail.

As genuinely liberal newspaper The Economist so aptly put it: “The drug war only ever yields pyrrhic victories.”

So, why do we continue with repeating such stupidity? Because moral conservatives, who are at best irrational and at their worst delusional, influence weak politicians. And because police agencies use the war on drugs as a means of building their empire, and as a promotion tool for officers.

Spend time in the drug squad, pick up a few grains of sand on the drug beach call it a win, and you climb the police hierarchy. And finally, because there is so much fear-driven nonsense about the dangers of drugs. Alcohol is more harmful than ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis and MDMA when assessed by harm to the individual and to others. But one is legal and the others are illegal. Go figure.

As we know drug policy is built on prejudice, racism and history, not rationality. Alcohol is acceptable to the Western Empire so let’s make sure it’s legal.

And we pursue the folly of a drug-free society. Governments and some conservative non-government organisations preach this BS. But, as Carl Hart, the renowned Columbia University based psychologist, has observed: “People have used drugs since we have inhabited the earth. The notion of a drug-free society is a political statement, and not one that’s grounded in reality.”

There is change coming as communities get smart about drug use. In many US states, Latin American nations and Canada cannabis is legal.

In Portugal for over two decades, possession, use and small-scale selling of drugs has been removed from the criminal justice ambit. As Scott Akin and Clayton Misher noted on The Conversation last year, Portugal “has much lower rates of drug use than the European average. Use of cocaine among young adults age 15 to 34, for example, is 0.3 per cent in Portugal, compared with 2.1 per cent across the EU. Amphetamine and MDMA consumption is likewise lower in Portugal. Last year, voters in Oregon decriminalised drugs.”

Sadly here in Tasmania our police and courts waste huge sums of scarce taxpayer funds and time on prosecuting individuals who simply possess and use drugs, in many cases not because of an addiction but because they enjoy it. Cocaine is a good example. It’s a drug taken generally when people are having fun. Similarly, party drugs at music festivals.

Why doesn’t Tasmania end the madness of pursuing a pointless and frankly unjust policy that penalises you if you enjoy cocaine but not alcohol? At least let’s have a discussion.

The last word on the stupidity of drugs policy goes to a senior judge who once told this columnist: “Whenever I sentence a trafficker I create a vacancy in the market.”