Australia must stop criminalising addiction and shift its drug policy focus to harm reduction and providing support to drug users, Vernon White and John Ryan write.
Too often, police are taught that enforcing drug laws meant targeting not only traffickers, but users too. After all, the law is clear: all illegal drugs were to be treated the same. Thankfully, there’s a better way to keep our communities safe.
Patterns in drug use over the past few decades have shifted. Cocaine use increased in Australia through the 1980s and into the 1990s. More recently, amphetamines – more accessible and less expensive than cocaine – became the drug of choice for many illicit drug users.
By the mid-1990s another shift in supply and cost also saw significant increases in heroin consumption. The turn of the century brought with it a heroin shortage, and a new form of amphetamine – methamphetamine – arrived on the scene.
The use of methamphetamine increased rapidly across Australia. As in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Australia has also experienced an increase in the abuse of opioids, particularly pharmaceutical-grade opioids.
At the same time, there’s been a disturbing growth in the United States and United Kingdom in the number and rate of both fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Australia has not been immune from these harmful trends either.
It is not uncommon for people who use drugs to cycle through different drug types, since drug choice is predominantly affected by availability and cost.
While the past 35 years have seen a continuous shifting of drug use patterns and preferences, there has been one illicit drug that has never fallen out of favour. The prevalence of cannabis use in Australia is one of the highest in the world.
The latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that, as of 2019, 36 per cent of Australians had used cannabis at some point – some 7.6 million people. Almost 12 per cent of Australians, or 2.4 million people, had used cannabis in the 12 months prior to the survey. Issues around fear of admitting illegal behaviour could result in significant under-reporting, and these numbers may be even higher in reality.
Despite the widespread use of cannabis among Australians, police continue to enforce laws that classify cannabis as an illegal substance. In fact, the Australian Crime Commission reported that there were more than 72,000 cannabis arrests in Australia in 2017-18, with 92 per cent, or more than 66,000, being consumer arrests – for what is often termed simple possession.
The current laws criminalising cannabis do not reflect the views of the Australian public. While cannabis remains illegal in most of the country, attitudes towards cannabis have shifted over the past decade. More Australians now support the legalisation of cannabis than oppose it, and more than 70 per cent of Australians now believe that there should be no criminal consequence for simple possession of cannabis.
The Australian community is not alone in its shifting attitude to cannabis. Many former and current police leaders have identified that prohibition has little or no impact on drug use.
Recently, former Victoria Police Commissioner Ken Lay explained that “you can’t arrest your way out of this problem”, while former Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Palmer similarly acknowledged that “drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market”.
Yet, in Australia, prohibition is the dominant response to drug use. This leaves organised crime groups to import, manufacture, and distribute the product and to keep tight control over the market.
To echo yet another former AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin, Australian policymakers need to consider alternative approaches to drug use that result in safer and healthier communities.
When even the heads of police organisations acknowledge that the current approach is failing, surely it is time to try something different.
Many police leaders across Australia hold the view that criminalising drug use has failed. The stark reality is that prohibition not only funnels people who use drugs into an already overstretched criminal justice system that does not address their underlying issues, but also results in criminal control of a large and profitable black market.
This has especially perverse consequences in relation to cannabis, a substance that is considerably less dangerous than most illegal drugs. Despite its relative safeness, cannabis supply in Australia is still controlled by the criminal underworld, unlike in Canada and many states in the United States, where it is able to be regulated and taxed.
Policies that focus on reducing harm and providing treatment, education, and prevention, not punishment, can prevent problematic drug use and heal those dependent on drugs, without involving the criminal justice system.
Apart from its other benefits, developing a health-based approach to drug addiction might just allow the criminal justice system to focus its talents and resources on organised crime and illegal drug traffickers and manufacturers, rather than locking away users – often the people who are in most need of help.