The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2023, released in June, outlines that the Australian use of the illegal drug cocaine is, per capita, the highest in the world. Sydney has long been known as the country’s capital of coke.
Sydneysiders continue to consume cocaine at growing rates, despite the distance to its South American source (which leads to exorbitant and continually rising prices), as well as the fact that much of it is of low quality as it is cut with numerous adulterants prior to its on-the-street sale.
The 2021–22 New South Wales Crime Commission Annual Report noted that the importation of illicit drugs is the primary driver of organised crime in NSW. As it has already noted, despite numerous annual drug seizures at the border, local availability of imported illicit substances is not being impacted.
Following the latest street drug execution on July 27, Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, calling on Premier Chris Minns to consider the one approach that will “drive organised drug gangs out of business overnight” — “legalisation”.
“Recreational or not, when you make it illegal to possess something that people want, you’re going to have a black market on your hands,” Faehrmann who is the NSW Greens drug law reform spokesperson, wrote. She has been making this point about illicit substances since re-entering parliament in August 2018.
“The Australian Institute of Criminology says that organised crime costs Australia over $60 billion a year, much of which can be attributed to illegal drug activity and consequential activity like money laundering.”
Faehrmann pointed to a comment, made to the SMH by an unnamed NSW police source, who said: “These gangsters would be on Centrelink in six months if you legalised drugs.”
It reflects the growing community understanding, even within police that, rather than reduce illicit drug use, prohibition increases it while also creating crime networks and unnecessarily criminalising those who use drugs, and that the safest source of drugs is a legal one.
“That black market is obviously of very high value to criminals,” Faehrmann told Sydney Criminal Lawyers (SCL). “If we legalised cocaine, making it safely available for recreational use, that black market will cease to exist almost immediately.”
Legalisation reduces harm
Cocaine is not the usual go-to illicit substance in the legalisation debate. It is the relationship between the drug and the violent shootings that has led to Faehrmann pointing out the huge harm reduction that legal cocaine would lead to.
“There are a couple of reasons why cocaine isn’t really mentioned,” Faehrmann told SCL. “Part of the reason is that there’s greater sentiment around legalising cannabis, so until that gets legalised first, there isn’t too much optimism around a campaign for cocaine legalisation.
“Another factor is that cocaine doesn’t really have a use in modern medicine, unlike cannabis and MDMA. So, cocaine is sort of seen purely as a recreational drug, without the additional reasons to legalise it.”
But, as Faehrmann stressed, regardless of how cocaine is used, there’s a huge market for it and people are being “shot in broad daylight” in relation to it. A clean, affordable and legal supply of cocaine would definitely result in less criminal activity and violence on the streets, and make its use a lot safer.
Calls for an end to the war on drugs have grown over the last decade since the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared it to be a failure in its first report, released in 2011, titled “The War on Drugs”.
The significance of this report, and the 10 more since, is that the Global Commission is comprised of former heads of state and renowned public figures. In 2011, it included the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, as well as an ex-PM of Greece.
The report outlined that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the foundational treaty of modern drug prohibition, as well as the launch of its law enforcement arm in 1971, former US president Richard Nixon’s war on drugs has led to the opposite of its stated aims.
The commission, which is chaired today by former Aotearoa/New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, outlined that prohibition has led to a rise in drug supply, the creation of huge international criminal networks, the increase in harms associated with drugs and the criminalisation of millions of otherwise law-abiding people.
We “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens”, the commissioners wrote.
Dragging its feet
The Minns government won office after more than a decade of Coalition government during which community calls for the decriminalisation and legalisation of, what are today, illicit substances has grown. Coalition ministers' sloganising response was “just say no” to drugs.
But the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice and the NSW Inquest into the Death of Six Patrons of NSW Music Festivals have called for a different approach, including the decriminalisation of personal possession and use.
Minns has promised to put drug law reform on the agenda. But instead of acting on the advice of the two expert reports, he has called for another drug summit at some point in the future.
“It’s unfortunate that we need a drug summit at all,” Faehrmann said. “All the experts are saying that we’ve got the insight we need for best practice drug law reform through” the inquiry and the inquest. “Yet here we are being told that we need a drug summit” and “at the same time, we can’t get an indication of when the summit will commence”.
Since the last summit in 1999, the ACT Labor Greens government has legalised the personal possession and use of cannabis, as well as implementing pill testing. It will decriminalise the most popular illicit drugs in October.
When the summit “inevitably does commence” Faehrmann said she hopes it “looks to broader issues that weren’t recommended by the ice inquiry, like pill testing and legal regulation of cocaine”.
[This article was first published at Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]