Frequently Asked Questions
It is not the drugs themselves that Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform are interested in but rather the policies which surround them. The policy of prohibition has caused more harm to our society than was ever intended. Since prohibition harms have increased. The abuse of drugs is more effectively treated as a health and social problem than by the imposition of criminal laws.
Several United Nations conventions form the basis of prohibitory drug laws in Australia. The Federal Government and each state or territory of Australia has framed laws with minor differences that together impose the intentions of those conventions on each Australian jurisdiction.
Drugs such as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are legal drugs, each subject to different laws and regulations controlling their quality, distribution or use. Clinical quality amphetamines, cocaine and morphine can be prescribed, but are also available as street drugs of uncertain quality. Heroin and cannabis are prohibited.
Since 1965 Australia has modified the prohibitions with measures called "Harm Reduction" (HR). For example needle exchange programs have been authorised and subsidised by governments and some states and territories have legislated that police may deal with persons possessing less than a specified quantity of cannabis with fines. However the drug injected, using a subsidised needle, is still an illicit drug and the cannabis, subject to a fine, is still prohibited.
Comparing disease and death statistics of jurisdictions which have implemented HR and those which have not, the benefits of HR are striking. For example New York City with a population similar to that of NSW, but virtually no HR policies, had accumulated 17,000 cases of paediatric AIDS by 1996 compared with 42 in NSW over the same period.
Claims that prohibition has deterred large numbers from taking a prohibited drug are impossible to verify and there has been no research undertaken in this area.
However as an indication about the effect of prohibition - before heroin (diacetylmorphine) was prohibited in Australia in 1953, it was legally available, and was of known concentration and purity, and regulated by the various state acts.
It was not known how many unauthorised users there were, but disease and deaths due to its use were insignificant. Since 1953 the illegal heroin available on the streets is of unknown concentration and purity. Death and disease due to this street drug have been increasing since its prohibition in 1953.
Professor David Penington in Meanjin (2002, vol 61 No 2, p13) has noted that in Italy since 1990 "criminal penalties no longer pertain for possession or use of drugs; ‘administrative sanctions’ apply. Deaths from drug overdose in Italy are below those of Sweden and much of continental Europe."
The use of illegal drugs affects us all even if we don't use drugs ourselves or even if no one in our family does. The economic cost falls on all tax paying citizens. Insurance payments, added health costs, added law enforcement costs, and added incarceration costs impact on us all. The illegal drug market supports a system that is destructive to society because of the corruption and crime, and because of the destructive attitudes and approaches adopted for those unfortunate enough to become addicted.
We all want to live in a safer and more caring society. And we all want our kids - if they use drugs - to get help from health professionals rather than police and prison officials. If that's what we want for our own loved ones, why support something different for other people's kids. After all, if we can't keep drugs out of our maximum security prisons, what hope have we got creating 'drug free suburbs'?
Prohibition is very expensive. It is ineffective in reducing supply or demand and often dangerously counter-productive. Since prohibition was adopted drug overdose deaths have increased (from 6 in 1964 to 725 in 2000). We only managed to control HIV through harm reduction, not zero tolerance. Crime and corruption has increased because prohibition has ensured that illicit drugs offer the greatest profit margin of any substance on Earth.. Attempts to stamp out drugs in one place, like squeezing a balloon, will cause them to bubble out somewhere else. When one drug is prohibited. another more concentrated and more dangerous drug takes its place. For example during the US period of alcohol prohibition it was not beer that was smuggled but the more concentrated form of alcohol, spirits, that was smuggled into or made in the US. In Australia the more concentrated heroin is smuggled in preference to the less concentrated base product opium.
The current laws are not based on evidence. Governments should be looking to evidence based policies. And sufficient evidence exists to suggest that an alternate approach is necessary.
Another good place to start is to examine overseas policies that have shown positive results. For example the Swiss heroin prescription trial has shown many benefits. The prescription under closely supervised conditions of about 1000 severely addicted persons, for whom all other treatments had failed brought positive results for themselves and for society. The street market shrank because the removal of only 1000 dependent users from the black market reduced the profit incentive to sell, and reduced the number of dependent users funding their use by selling to others.
We should be carrying out such a trial in Australia to see if it brings better results for individuals and society than when heroin is supplied by criminals. If this trial works it could be made a treatment option for people who do not respond to anything else. There is also a good case for following the same idea for a trial of amphetamine prescription.