The flawed policy of prohibition must be superseded by serious consideration of law reform. By Elle Hardy.

Elle Hardy
Lighting up debate on drugs

If there is one thing about public policy that everybody knows, it is that prohibition doesn’t work. Yet when it comes to drugs, which despite their illegality are ubiquitous, the only prohibition in force is on that of successful policy. The Australian drug reform movement has historically lacked coherence and strong figureheads, and has struggled for momentum, but the success of Portuguese drug decriminalisation and the recent legalisation of marijuana in the US states of Washington and Colorado present an opportunity to bring the issue back to the mainstream.

When Tony Abbott stated earlier this year that the war on drugs is “not a war we will ever finally win”, it led to the question of why we’re fighting such a war to be asked twice: why are we fighting it at all, and why are we continuing to fight if it cannot be won? 

Given there are many entry points in favour of drug decriminalisation, such as health, cost of enforcement, civil liberties and the failure of zero-tolerance policies, it is curious that the mood for change is faint. Crystal meth use in particular has risen significantly in recent years, and given some of the violent and horrific crimes committed by people under its influence, one can sense that the inducement of moral panic is not far away. The recent arrest and charge of murder against former New South Wales premier Neville Wran’s daughter Harriet, said to be addicted to and under the influence of crystal meth at the time of the crime, may prove a catalyst for renewed debate about drugs.

Interestingly, the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal was in response to an increase in heroin use. It was not a movement of liberty but a policy response to existing, failing drug laws, which the government saw as “a totally inappropriate and disproportionate response to simple consumers”. The success of decriminalisation across every conceivable metric has provided the evidence and the template. Just as significantly, the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has transported the issue into the Anglosphere: it’s now not just those liberal Europeans promoting reform, it’s theoretically conservative Americans, too.

Most Australians who take recreational drugs – and we are said to have the highest per capita use of any country – are not addicts or otherwise criminals. The drugs taboo must not only be broken, but rejected in and of itself. We have already surrendered honesty to self-censorship, and now the refrain that drugs are a health issue and should be treated as such has become commonplace, even from advocates of reform. The language, too, is corrupted: illegal drugs are “used” rather than “consumed”, as alcohol and cigarettes are. The issue is falsely couched in terms of either abstinence or addiction. By allowing the notion to persist that drugs are by definition bad, we cede ground before we’ve begun.

The key to achieving liberalisation is generating political will, the ghost in the machine of politics. Any urgency and intensity of opinion on the issue tends to push in precisely the opposite direction, resulting in reactionary and illiberal policy. It is clear that drug law reform will not come from the political class, particularly given the strict adherence to voting along party lines. Resolving the question of how to achieve change surely lies in the broad coalition of voices in favour of reform. The ability to speak across demographics and political persuasions will help to create a climate to which politicians eventually must respond. There is no incentive for politicians to stick their neck out on an issue that has previously faced relentless tabloid newspaper campaigns against harm minimisation, despite its many benefits. It is worth countering the sentiment of panic on its own turf: that the vested interests, not to mention the sole profiteers, in the sale of illegal drugs are unpleasant criminal gangs.

Advocates ought to look to the gay marriage lobby as the model of how to change public opinion in favour of social reform. Remarkably, in 10 years, it has  helped almost double public support for gay marriage to 72 per cent. The success of the movement cannot be underestimated: hundreds of thousands of people have been made advocates for a cause that does not affect them. Part of their success has been making the issue as cultural as it is political, enabling the movement to talk to people over the heads of policymakers.

Of course, gay marriage has succeeded on every front but the legislative. It is thought that even if all parties allowed a conscience vote on the issue, it would still be unsuccessful at this point in time. The change is now inevitable, but for better or worse, change takes time. Advocates of drug law reform will need to wage a concerted campaign for decades, rather than the standard practice of an eminent person popping their head up every few years only to have it whacked down by the prime minister or premier of the day. They need to see out the political careers of anachronistic moralists and assert to the next generation that drug decriminalisation is important in terms of both values and policy. But first they must persuade the people.

Too often, policy progression in this country is stifled by an attitude that Australians are inherently too conservative, or that they are incapable of persuasion by an intelligent argument. When almost one-third of Australians have come to the conclusion that small-scale drug decriminalisation is the correct policy response without any leadership on the issue, an organised and effective movement can make significant gains. Quite the opposite of reform for reform’s sake, overseas evidence points to a wide range of benefits for both individuals and society as a whole. It is the cowardice of our elites, not the lack of sophistication of the Australian people, that has prevented serious consideration of drug law reform. In an age where community campaigns can bear significant weight, it is time to show our leaders that prohibition of good ideas will not be tolerated.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Lighting up debate on drugs". Subscribe here.

Elle Hardy
is a US-based freelance writer.