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False hopes in the drug war

Comment by Brian McConnell Aug 2014

In the past few months something of a miracle has happened.
It happened in April this year in the context of the release of the report by the Australian Crime Commission. The media release from the ACC said this:
"New evidence released today in the Australian Crime Commission's Illicit Drug Data Report 2012–13 reveals seizures and arrests of nearly all drug types across the country were at record highs."
Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital released the report saying:
"The information released today is as encouraging as it is challenging. Law enforcement is making significant inroads in the fight against illicit drugs. We're detecting more criminals and disrupting more illicit drugs before they hit the streets," Mr Keenan said.
"But there is much more work to be done and this report also provides critical evidence so that decision makers and law enforcement officers can develop further strategies to undermine the business models of organised crime and combat the threat of illicit drugs."
Well, we have heard that or something similar many times before. It is not new. Seizures and arrests are up so we must be making a difference. We haven't won yet but there is much more to do. We are spending $X millions and promise more in this fight.
This years report is accompanied with colourful info graphics to emphasise that the almost 102,000 arrests are the highest on record and that the drug seizure numbers of almost 87,000 are also the highest on record.
While the data may look dramatic and have some marginal use it does not show whether progress is actually being made in this war on drugs. It essentially shows increased drug availability/use and/or increased police activity. It does not show the impact the arrests or seizures might have made on the drug market.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated total consumption of the major drug group in 2010 at 247,092kg and drug seizures according to the ACC amounted to 7,131kg. Therefore  drug seizures for 2010 was a miniscule 2.9 percent of that consumed. This is a more realistic measure of progress in this war on drugs. A result that would not trouble any supplier but if publicised by the ACC would be an embarrassment to it and all those promoting the war on drugs.
One could also argue that increased arrests are taking the manufacturers and dealers off the streets and thus are having a significant impact. Well, no. The vast majority of arrests are of users - 81.4 percent in fact, while only 16.8 percent of arrests are of dealers.
But will the arrests of those 83,000 users make a difference? This arrest rate of users is only about 3 percent of the millions of people who use drugs in Australia. How many people need to be arrested to make a real difference? And do we measure the collateral damage and cost of bringing these people in contact with the criminal justice system?
Has there been any realistic comments by anyone of importance since the release of the ACC data. We can discount the Minister for Justice because he is just reading from a prepared speech about which he has little knowledge or understanding.
Well yes there has, and this is the miracle. The Melbourne Herald Sun carried this as a headline: Police chiefs admit drugs they seize are just the tip of the iceberg.  In the newspaper article  AFP Commissioner Tony Negus admitted “This isn’t a problem law enforcement can arrest its way out of.” This may be the first  time a serving member of the AFP has admitted that the current system of trying to stop drugs using the criminal justice system hasn't worked.
Sometimes miracles come in pairs because the same newspaper report also quoted: “It’s not a war we will ever finally win,” Mr Abbott said on 3AW. “The war on drugs is a war you are going to lose."
So having realised and publicly announced this reality will he do something more sensible about it? Well he went on to say: “You may not ever win it, but you’ve always got to fight it.”
Hmmm. I had my hopes up for a little while.


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