Blog of Josephine Baxter, Vice President
Prior to working in the alcohol and drug sector, Ms Baxter held the position as Educational Manager in the TAFE sector in Australia, where she made a significant contribution to quality management in international programs in Bangladesh, India, Italy and the United Kingdom. During this time she completed two research scholarships in the United States. Ms Baxter entered the Alcohol and Drug sector as CEO of Life Education in South Australia in January, 2000. She is currently Executive Director of Drug Free Australia. Read more about Josephine Baxter here.
The so-called ‘high level’ r report on illicit drugs, suggesting that decriminalisation across the board, will solve Australia’s drug problems, lacks sound scientific basis and credibility and, as such should be discounted. The following a just some of the reasons:

First, it is not the ‘War on Drugs’ that has failed, but rather, it’s the failure of Australia’s Illicit Drugs Policy to satisfactorily address primary prevention.

For over 25 years Australians have endured a policy of Harm Minimisation, which has left a ‘train wreck’ in families and communities across the nation. It has failed to prioritise prevention and spent costly resources on drug maintenance programs, rather than helping people to recover from drug addiction.

Many reputable reports, such one in the ‘Lancet’, in late 2011, reveal that Australia has amongst the highest per capita cannabis and amphetamine use rates in the Asia Pacific. For over a decade, the United Nations World Drug Reports have shown a constant trend, that our illicit drug use rates are the highest in the OECD.

This policy is failing our emerging generation. For instance – the decision to decriminalise cannabis in some states, in the 1980’s has resulted in young Australians being confused about its legal status. In fact many have the misconception that marijuana is a legal drug and therefore ‘safe’. The result? Marijuana is the most used of all the illicit drugs in Australia. The sad reality is a rise in cases of impaired driving, road trauma, family violence and dysfunction, together with increased incidence of mental illness, (including schizophrenia and psychosis). Cannabis is also proven to be a ‘gateway drug’ to amphetamines, crystal meth and heroin. There is now indisputable scientific evidence that it has higher THC content, making it at least as harmful as those in the ‘hard drug’ category.

History shows that, once a drug is made legal, it use increases. It becomes a more ‘acceptable’ substance, and usually becomes more accessible. We only have to look at the impact of alcohol and tobacco. – both legal in Australia, both regulated and both the most damaging in terms of burden of disease.

Why would the authors of the Australia 21 report not consider these facts? Perhaps their credibility should be questioned? They have failed to recognised that, between 2000 and 2006, Australia had a Tough on Drugs Strategyand our illicit drug use rates dropped significantly. The trend is now turning around. Interestingly, this corresponds with the discontinuation of the National School Drug Education Strategy and no visible signs of a clear Federal ‘Tough on Drugs Strategy’.

The report lacks real substance, and poses numerous generalisations that may sound feasible on the surface, but it lacks practical application.

For example, it fails to provide any resolution to the list of tough practical questions posed by the United Nations INCB when addressing the issues around levels of drug legalisation and decriminalisation.

Questions such as:

(a) What drugs would be legalised (cannabis, cocaine, crack – the free-base form of cocaine – heroin, hallucinogens, ecstasy? According to what criteria would they be legalised and who would determine those criteria?

(b) What potency levels would be permitted (5%, 10% or 14% THC content of cannabis; Burmese No. 3 grade, Mexican black tar or China white heroin)?

(c) Since legalisation would entail the removal of prescription requirements for psychoactive pharmaceuticals, what would be done to control the adverse consequences of their non-medical use? How would the marketing of such new drugs be dealt with? Would they be permitted without even a qualifying period and evaluation? What would happen with designer drugs?

(d) Would production and manufacture be limited? If so, how would limits be enforced (e.g. limited to home production for personal use or to cottage industries or to manor enterprises)?

(e) What market restrictions would there be? Would the private sector or the public sector or both be involved? How would price, purity and potency levels be established and regulated? Would advertising be permitted? If so, what drug would be advertised and by whom?

(f) Where would such drugs be sold? (i.e. Over the counter, through the mail, vending machines or restaurants)? Would the sale of such drugs be limited to dependent abusers? If so, how many and from which cities or countries? What about experimenters and those not yet granted dependent status?

(g) Would there be age limits for the use of legalised drugs and, if so, for which ones (e.g. access to cannabis at age 16, to cocaine at age 18 and to heroin at age 21)? Would there be restrictions on use because of impairment of function (e.g. restrictions on use by transport, defence, nuclear power and other workers)?

(h) For any restrictions found necessary or desirable, what agency would enforce the law, what penalties and sanctions would be established for violations and how would the risks of corruption and continued illicit traffic be dealt with?’ (‘The Arguments Against Illicit Drug Legalisation’, D. Evans, WFAD 2009, p.29)
It also fails to give credit to such successes of 100 years of UN Drug Control Conventions as:
  • In 2007 drug control had reduced the global opium supply to 1/3rd the level in 1907.
  • During the last decade, coca cultivation has decreased by one third and the world output of cocaine, and amphetamine type stimulants have stabilised;
  • Cannabis output has declined since 2004.

It fails to include relevant information from countries that have tried a more liberal approach and have returned to focus on harm prevention. For instance:
  • Sweden – tried legalising and prescribing illicit substances as far back as 1965 and then abandoned it for a ‘restrictive’ drug policy when usage rates escalated. Sweden continues to enjoy the lowest per capita illicit drug use rates in the world. It is no coincidence that they have a correlation of low drug use and significantly lower child abuse rates than their counterparts in Europe.
  • The Netherlands, who has had a history of liberal drug policy, is now doing an about face. For example in the 1970s, “coffee shops” emerged in the Netherlands offering marijuana products for sale. Even though possession and sale of marijuana are not technically legal, the coffee shops were permitted to sell marijuana under certain restrictions to include a limit of no more than 5 grams sold to a person at any one time. The Dutch saw the use of marijuana among young people more than double. The use of ecstasy and cocaine by 15-16 year olds rose significantly. After marijuana use became normalised, consumption among 18 to 20 year-olds nearly tripled - from 15 per cent to 44 per cent. It has since declined due to an anti-marijuana program by the government. In 2004, the government of the Netherlands formally announced its mistake. It stated that “cannabis is not harmless - either for the abusers or for the community." The Netherlands began to implement an action plan to discourage cannabis use and is current actively closing many of its coffee shops.
  • Portugal – recently, heralded by some who would legalise drugs in Australia, as a model to be emulated, is now winding back its Harm Reduction strategies, as the results have not been what they had anticipated.
  • In the United States the Obama Administration has categorically stated that it will not legalise illicit drugs and is actively cracking down on those states where medical marijuana has been sanctioned.
  • The UK reversed their National Drug Strategy, when in 2010 the previous emphasis on Harm Reduction was replaced with to one of Demand Reduction and Primary Prevention.

  • Though the authors of Australia 21 may once have played a role in policy and practice in the illicit drug arena, they now appear to be extraordinarily out-of-touch with current scientific evidence, as well as the reality of what the vast majority of people in Australia really want – a healthy future for our kids!

    Jo Baxter – Board Member for Oceania and Vice President, WFAD