Drugs: Facts please, not hysteria

April 12, 2007

In the lead-up to the March 24 NSW state election, you could be forgiven for believing that the NSW Greens were drug dealers: Hysterical attacks were launched on the party's drugs policy, which focuses on harm minimisation and health issues.

Decriminalising ice (crystal methamphetamine), "is an absurd, disgusting policy", declared Morris Iemma, NSW's Labor premier. "The ALP are effectively giving votes to drug dealers", said (now former) Liberal leader Peter Debnam referring to a Greens-ALP preference deal. Fred Nile, the Christian Democratic Party's arch-conservative member of the Legislative Council, even called for drug testing for all members of parliament. Greens Senator Kerry Nettle welcomed the suggestion — as long as alcohol and tobacco were also tested for.

In an attempt to differentiate themselves from the ALP, the NSW Liberal Party proposed a new "tough on drugs" policy that would increase policing of drug users.

This "debate" took place during a media frenzy about the increased use of methamphetamines, known by the street name ice. Ice is quite addictive and has stimulant effects that can cause users to become aggressive. Use of ice can have dire health consequences and a number of well-publicised deaths have occurred as a result of overdoses.

The alleged prevalence of ice was cited as a reason for the need to send a message, particularly to young people, that illicit drug use is wrong and will not be tolerated.

Hysteria and tub thumping aside, there is a serious issue that could have been debated: the issue of drug prohibition. There are only two legally sanctioned recreational drugs in Australia: tobacco and alcohol. Recreational use of any other mind-altering substance is criminalised. This selective prohibition of drugs helps account for the 75% of people who, according to "Drugs and Prisons: Shooting for Harm Reduction", a workshop presented by Kat Armstrong at the February 2006 International Conference on Penal Abolition in Hobart, are sent to prison for drug-related crimes.

During 2004-05, there were almost 8000 arrests of drug users in NSW, according to the Australian Crime Commission's Illicit Drug Data Report — almost four-and-a-half times more than the total number of arrests of drug producers, dealers and traffickers. Over 70% of all drug-related arrests nationwide during the same period were related to cannabis use or supply.

Proponents of drug prohibition argue that criminalisation is the most effective way to deal with the social and health consequences of drugs use. Opponents of drug prohibition, such as the Greens and the Socialist Alliance, call for a focus on harm minimisation based on an understanding that drug use is primarily a health issue.

Missing from the NSW drugs "debate" were several facts. An April 12 Sydney Morning Herald article revealed that over the past five years drug use had significantly declined in all areas except alcohol, which had increased. The image portrayed in the more hysterical sections of the corporate media of masses of young people becoming hopelessly addicted to illicit drugs is, in fact, inaccurate. Fewer young people are using illicit drugs than five years ago. Fewer young people are smoking tobacco, probably a result of the campaign to educate people on the health consequences of smoking. But more young people are drinking alcohol at dangerous levels according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The SMH article also revealed, however, that 40% of Australians have engaged in the use of illicit drugs at some point in their life. The most commonly used illicit drug was cannabis; the least used drugs were methamphetamines.

Tobacco, alcohol, cannabis and ice all have things in common: They are all mind-altering substances and can all cause serious health problems. They all modify behaviour to an extent. Abuse of the first two is legal but regulated. It is illegal to consume them in certain places or at certain times, and to sell them you have to obey certain laws aimed at minimising the negative social consequences of their consumption. Addiction to alcohol and tobacco is treated medically.

Consumption of cannabis and ice is at all times and in all places illegal. To sell them is the province of criminals, with no regulations designed to minimise harm to users. The illegality of their sale increases their price and contributes to further crimes. Addiction to these substances can be treated medically, but using the drugs themselves as part of treatment is largely illegal. This means that their very illegality contributes to the social and health consequences of their consumption.

A socialist policy on drugs recognises that the consumption of drugs is primarily a health issue. Criminalisation and the "moral" hysteria surrounding drug use only exacerbate — and in many cases actually create — the social costs of drug use and increases health risks to users. The sale of mind-altering drugs should be regulated under community control in consultation with health professionals to minimise harm to users and society. The Socialist Alliance calls for the decriminalisation of drug use, including legalisation and licensed sale of cannabis use.

[Peter Robson is a member of the Sydney central branch of the Socialist Alliance.]

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