A war too valuable to win

April 24, 1991

An Unwinnable War Against Drugs: The Politics of Decriminalisation
By Terry Carney, Les Drew, John Mathews, Stephen Mugford and Alex Wodak
Pluto Press. 73 pp. $6.95
Reviewed by Barry Healy

As the cost of the "drug war" is counted up in the number of burglaries in major cities and the incidence of AIDS among needle users, the question increasingly arises: will policy makers ever break their apparent addiction to their current, patently ineffective, course of action?

This slim volume, published in association with the Fabian Society and Socialist Forum (two policy discussion circles within the ALP), brings together papers by four leading critics.

In his introduction, John Mathews states that the aim is to provide arguments for those debating these matters with such bodies as the Law Council and the Royal Australian College of Physicians. This goal is achieved at the cost of accessibility to the general reader.

Dry, featuring long excursions into logical conundrums, this is definitely not the stuff of mass market reading — though the lay person can find gems like the table showing drug-caused deaths in Australia, which alone exposes much of the official hypocrisy.

The contributors have different perspectives: medicine, sociology and philosophy of law. The fundamental proposition is that the "war on drugs" is a manifest failure, but there are some variations in each writer's conclusions.

The authors have faith in the good intentions of the state. Each refers to the civil liberties dangers in the "war", yet increased state surveillance of drug use, in one form or another, is a recurrent theme. For example, Dr Les Drew proposes that illegal drugs should be legalised and their supply regulated, and that all users (including users of tobacco and alcohol) be issued with licences to consume. The prospect of government spying on citizens' private choices through such licences is quite chilling.

Logical flaws

However, useful points are made. One is the examination of the logically flawed case for criminalisation by Dr Stephen Mugford. He shows that, far from reducing problems, the outlawing of drugs compounds them.

Mugford argues for what he calls a pragmatic-utilitarian approach: the aim is to lessen the damage caused by drugs by the most effective means. He calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis and the distribution of heroin to registered addicts. He also calls for stricter controls of tobacco and alcohol, including raising age limits and banning advertising.

Dr Alex Wodak, in the best article of the collection, puts a powerful case for controlled distribution of heroin. He says that present laws actually encourage unsafe practices among addicts, and that this is shaping the next major phase of the AIDS epidemic. He also touches on the distorting effect the drug trade has on countries in the Third World, which are forced into dependence on their most salable, but illegal, cash crop.

The question of who benefits from the current laws is never addressed, though the answer would be revealing. In Australia, corrupt police, politicians and judges would head the list.

Since the end of the Cold War, US policy makers have been casting about for justifications of their enormous military expenditures, and the "war on drugs" is one of them. Anti-drug moralism is now a cover for US foreign policy objectives. The invasion of Panama was partly justified as an attack on the drug trade, and there are recurring accusations of CIA trafficking in various drugs to finance its dirtier undercover operations.

Some of the most influential people in Australian business reap massive profits from alcohol and tobacco sales. They will not take kindly to any campaign to properly regulate their businesses or to introduce competitors.

None of these entrenched interests are going to be moved by the persuasive arguments of this volume. n

Issue