How reducing drug harm beats law enforcement

Written by Bill Bush
Published in City News of October 12-18, 2023.

How reducing drug harm beats law enforcement

The reaction to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s announcement that he would overturn the ACT’s drug decriminalisation laws, due to enter into effect on 28 October has focused on its significance for ACT self-government and democracy. That said, the very serious claims of the Federal Opposition deserve attention. Beneath the strident political bombast, Dutton is asserting that decriminalisation will make dangerous drugs more available in the ACT; that it will produce more drug use and more crime. Let’s look at each of these claims.


Availability of drugs and level of use

The prohibition of existing illicit substances that the opposition insists on perpetuating has produced a flood of illicit drugs, gifting its supply to organised crime. On the eve of the banning by the Menzies government of the import of heroin in 1953, Australia was consuming 5.25 kg of the drug for every million of the population. By the end of the century the National Crime Authority estimated Australian consumption had increased 70 times over, to 350 kg per million. In 1953 doctors declared that “heroin addiction is not a problem in Australia”. The drug was used in the preparation of cough mixtures and as a superior analgesic to its chemical cousin, morphine. One of our members, who was a pharmacist at the time, remembers dispensing those cough mixtures and another member, at her midwifery training at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne in the 1960s, recalls that the hospital retained a precious supply of the drug for use for intractable pain in childbirth.

The story of the stimulant crystal methamphetamine has parallels. It was very rare in Australia in the mid-1990s when Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform got going. Criminal intelligence feared it would reach Australia from Southeast Asia. The first reference to it was in the 1996/97 annual illicit drug report. From the onset of the heroin drought in December 2000 it rapidly displaced the far less potent existing forms of powdered methamphetamine so that by 2001, 3.4% of the Australian population had used meth/amphetamines in the previous 12 months.

Then AFP Commissioner, Mick Keelty, revealed that organised crime had switched from heroin to crystal meths because the latter was more profitable.

Now to cocaine. The 1993 household survey reported that just 0.5% had used the drug recently. By 2019 recent consumption had skyrocketed ninefold to 4.5%.

Data like this demonstrate that prohibition stimulates supply. Monitored market indicators of price, purity and availability confirm that drug law enforcement does not reduce supply. Despite large border seizures retail prices remain stable, purity levels rise and users report availability is stable or easy. If law enforcement were effective we would see increasing prices and reduced availability. Alas, that real heroin shortage was brought about by a market decision of the same organised crime cartels that flooded the country with crystal meths.

Level of Drug use

The harm reduction path on which the ACT is embarking has been far more effective in reducing the supply of illicit drugs. Heroin assisted treatment such as was championed by the ACT Carnell Liberal government but vetoed by the Howard government in 1997 produced in Switzerland a 76% reduction in the selling of “soft” drugs by those on the trial compared to before they were admitted to it and a whopping 92% reduction in the selling of “hard” drugs. The net result has been a large decline in regular heroin use, summarised in The Lancet as an 82% reduction in regular heroin use in Zürich.

According to a Californian Rand study of cocaine, treatment achieves seven times as much consumption reduction as domestic law enforcement.

The overly cautious ACT decriminalisation will hopefully have the more modest but substantial impact that Portugal, in its 22 years of drug decriminalisation, has seen with no overall increase in drug use and reduction in use by vulnerable young people.

Level of crime

What about crime generally? Suffice it to say that the Swiss heroin trial found that “heroin treatment constitutes without doubt one of the most effective measures ever tried in the area of crime prevention.” The reduction in property crime committed by participants in the Swiss trial was in the region of 90%. These manifest benefits of heroin assisted treatment were obvious to the 2018 Victorian inquiry into drug law reform and the 2019 Queensland Productivity Commission inquiry into the reduction of recidivism.

Fewer drugs, less drug use and less crime are thus the likely consequences of the ACT’s harm reduction course; a far cry from more drug law enforcement which serves as a form of retail price maintenance to the benefit of organised crime and police budgets.