Saturday, 16 July 2011

It's time for a national debate on drug laws - decriminalise and regulate

According to 2009 calculations, the war on drugs in Australia costs $4.7bn. That's slightly more than the entire compensation package for the carbon tax. The debates about drug laws have been topical for decades, and it's time we looked closely at them again. The current system isn't working, and it's illogical.

If we want to minimise harm, shouldn't we prohibit the most harmful drugs? Probably not.

The argument for prohibition centres on the harm caused by drugs.  If this really was the reason, then the drugs that are prohibited should be the ones that are the most harmful.  Unfortunately, this isn't what happens.  A paper published in the Lancet in 2007 by Professor David Nutt from the University of Bristol showed that the drugs that are most harmful are not the ones that are prohibited.

The following chart shows 20 substances ranked by harm, as assessed by a nine category matrix of harm and expert assessment. I have added the two orange bars to divide the drugs into three equal categories.

As you can see from their findings, the banned drugs cover the most harmful such as heroin and cocaine to the least harmful such as ecstasy.  It also shows that our most popular legal drug, alcohol, is in the most harmful category - even worse than tobacco.

So, if we want to ban the most harmful drugs, we should ban alcohol.  Of course, that was tried in the 1920s and led to catastrophic crime in the US.  It was a trial that failed.

What's the next alternative? Should everything be legal? Maybe.

There are many proponents of the legalisation approach, including many countries.   Robbie Swan's article in the Canberra Times this week explained that the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Calls for legalisation have come from a range of respected sources such as doctors.  GP, Wendell Rosevear was quoted at the Australia 2020 summit saying "I want to give drug addicts choices and I want to legalise all drugs in Australia."

There is a better alternative - regulate and tax.

In between these options of prohibition/enforcement and legalisation, there is another option.  We can regulate, tax and manage.

Those who are in favor of small government oppose regulation on principle.  I'm not one of those.  Well regulated industries are commonplace in Australia, and they generally work well.  Our pharmaceutical industry is carefully regulated.  Why shouldn't the recreational drug industry be the same.

I won't try to suggest the best methods of regulating drugs - but I support Robbie Swan's perspective in the Canberra Times article:

Over the past few decades the use of all recreational drugs has been on the increase except one tobacco. Cigarette smoking is the only recreational drug use that is in decline and that is because governments have control over the product including its packaging, point of sale, price and, most importantly, public health and education campaigns.

Let's start this debate.  Let's make it sensible, and logical.  Rather than prohibiting a randomly chosen set of substances, let's regulate all recreational drugs for the benefit of all.

Let me know what you think

Mark S

Correction: The article originally stated that "The most notable of these is Portugal, which legalised personal possession of drugs in 2001." Portugal decriminalised drugs, they did not legalise them.

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