Illicit drugs – how can Australia protect its people?

Three ways to reduce harm

John Coyne

Government and governance, National security | Australia

13 August 2019

To minimise the negative impacts of illicit drug use, Australia should legalise pill testing, regulate the growth and sale of marijuana, and decriminalise the personal possession of illicit drugs, John Coyne writes.

Last month, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime released its latest regional transnational organised crime assessment.

The report paints a rather bleak picture in which policy success against organised crime in the region has been fleeting at best. Worse still, the region is awash with illicit drugs while organised crime kingpins are likely to be enjoying record profits from increased production levels.

In Australia, even with law enforcement’s best efforts to reduce illicit drug supply, per capita consumption remains relatively unchanged. If I had to hazard a guess, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s October National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program report will at best reveal that the consumption of illicit drugs in the country remains unchanged.

Despite this, real shifts in Australian supply and harm reduction policy seem unlikely. Instead, many a policymaker will argue that, if not for Australia’s law enforcement and National Drug Strategy, the problem would be worse. However, under any analysis the ‘it could be worse’ perspective seems a little glib.

So, what innovative ideas could Australia apply right now to disrupt organised crime and reduce the harm caused by illicit drugs?

More on this: Australia has a drug problem

Australia’s National Drug Strategy seeks to reduce illicit drug harm by encouraging safer behaviour and reducing preventable risk. In line with this aim, the government could introduce pill testing at all of Australia’s music festivals.

While this policy may not immediately reduce drug use, it should be a no brainer choice as it saves lives. This policy is unlikely to prevent all overdoses, but it will most definitely mitigate many of the specific risks associated with MDMA use.

It is also very likely that this policy may have some impact on demand. At least some users will dispose of their illicit drugs because they will have accurate information on the risks.

Of course, some people will argue that this policy gives a green light to illicit drugs use, or that there is no technical means of ensuring that an illicit drug is safe for all users.

This policy, however, does not focus on providing such guarantees to drug users. It would be concerned with mitigating specific risks relating to drugs like MDMA being cut with dangerous additives that result in harm to users and the community.

More on this: Illicit drug monitoring

The government could also legalise marijuana use by regulating its growth and sale. The revenue generated from such regulation could fund compliance activities

While marijuana detections at Australia’s borders are not uncommon, the majority of it consumed by Australians is locally grown. The legalisation and regulation of marijuana cropping and distribution would likely deliver a body blow to local organised crime groups.

The measure would also free up valuable police resources that could disrupt supply chains for other drug classes that harm Australia and its people.

Some policymakers will likely highlight the harmful side effects of marijuana consumption. However, these effects pale in comparison to those of alcohol and tobacco consumption and both are legal and regulated.

If the aim of our strategies is to mitigate the risks associated with the individual using drugs – and the impact on their family members, friends, and the broader community – then this measure is likely to be successful.

More on this: Pod: A war on drugs, or on drug users?

Almost overnight, this measure could undermine organised crime profits and keep young people out of the criminal justice system.

Australia could also decriminalise the personal possession of illicit drugs. This policy would assist in keeping addicts from entering the criminal justice system.

It too, would see police resources freed up to focus on the production and distribution of illicit drugs. The subsequent savings could then provide rehabilitation services.

Some will argue that this policy initiative green-lights drug use. However, such perspectives fail to engage with the fact that a criminal record does not assist addicts to rehabilitate. Nor has the arrest of those using drugs led to demand reduction

Often those defending current illicit drug strategies argue that things would be worse without the current measures, or that there are no realistic alternatives. Nevertheless, this thinking does not lead to strategies that encourage safer behaviour, nor does it reduce illicit drug harm for individuals, families, and communities.

The three approaches proposed here are not without challenges. However, individually and collectively, they will likely minimise illicit drug harm in our communities. Just as importantly, they will directly hurt organised crime groups and their profits.

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