Why We Must End The War on Drugs

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Greg Denham was a serving police officer in Victoria and Queensland, including 5 years as a project officer with the Victoria Police Drug and Alcohol Policy Coordination Unit from 1997-2002.

Greg left policing in 2002 and over the past decade has been involved locally and internationally in drug policy issues including seven years living and working in South East Asia and China as a technical advisor on policing, HIV prevention and harm reduction at the Burnet and Nossal Institutes.

Greg is currently the Executive Officer for the Yarra Drug and Health Forum in Melbourne, where there are significant issues related to public injecting, and has called for the establishment of a supervised injecting facility.

He formed the Australian branch of LEAP - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - in 2010 which unites thousands of police and criminal justice officials worldwide who want to end the war on drugs and advocate for drug law reform.

Firstly I want to give you some historical background to the use of psycho-active substances for social, recreational and health uses. I will then talk about the impact of drug prohibition policies and how these policies are causing untold damage to society.

The use of psychoactive substances is littered throughout history. Few societies have not indulged in substances of one kind or another either to have fun and enjoyment, or just as importantly, to ease the burden of life, and in many cases save a life e.g. cocaine, morphine, heroin were developed in the mid to late 1800’s predominantly for their medical benefits.

However toward the end of the 19th C and at the beginning of 20th C there was a conservative backlash and the growth of temperance unions against alcohol and drug use as well as a growing moral agenda driven by a fear of minorities, such as blacks, Chinese, Latinos, who all had traditional histories of drug use.

This conservative backlash resulted in key countries agreeing to initiate laws that prohibited the use of various substances, mostly at the behest of the USA.

The US in particular wanted to show that they were the most committed to prohibition policies – e.g. Harrison Act 1914– which led to the gaoling of hundreds of drug addicts and the doctors that maintained them with their drugs of dependency and then of course we had Prohibition during the 1920’s.

And so as black markets in drugs and alcohol developed, they grew and expanded; bootlegging, the mafia, corruption, tough words and inflammatory rhetoric became the mainstay of prohibition.

In order to reinforce the notion of the ‘evils’ of drugs, during 20th century drug use became demonized. Substances such as marijuana were labelled as the ‘destroyer of youth’ and ‘reefer madness’ despite little or no evidence identifying cannabis as any more harmful than alcohol or tobacco (Mayor of New York - LaGuardia report 1930s).

And so it continued to the 1960’s when a new wave of drug use started, with increased personal freedom and anti-authority backlash (e.g. hippies), opposed to the Vietnam War, with drug use again labelled as subversive, anti-social, immoral and dysfunctional – as it had been sixty years previously and continues today.

During the 1960’s prohibitionist drug policies became strengthened through the UN system, again at the behest of the USA, with protocols developed that sought to reinforce the belief that the use of certain substances was in itself problematic and harmful and all countries should comply with these protocol requirements otherwise they would find themselves isolated and in a difficult position to access financial aid and other benefits offered.

So with that short trip down memory lane we bring ourselves to what I might describe as the ‘modern era’ of drug policy. I would like to start this episode with a review of more recent developments with a quote from a famous politician about drug policy:

‘America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.’

US President Richard Nixon, who was interestingly under the influence of alcohol and mood-altering drugs not legally prescribed to him (and was considered by many to be mentally unstable), for a significant part of his term in office said these words in1972. Since that time heroin has become cheaper, more pure and more readily available.

Thus with Nixon’s words drug abuse as such went from a relatively obscure problem impacting on just a few to a new political tactic, a wedge issue, a distraction from another war, of course, the Vietnam War. The new ‘political capitol’ in conducting a ‘war on drugs’ was born, a ‘drug war industry’ grew with police, corrections, politicians, media all profiting from this new drug ‘offensive’.

Well let’s not forget that "the first casualty when war comes is truth" so said Hiram W Johnson, senator for California, to the US Senate in 1917. The truth about the war on drugs has become somewhat obscured by the hysteria and panic attributable to the illicit drug market.

So, what is the truth about drug prohibition and the war on drugs at the local level?
The ‘evidence’ of the failure of drug prohibition is quite evident in its application ‘on the streets’. Let me give you some examples:

If I buy a packet of cigarettes from a shop and walk out on the street and I get asked by a passer-by to sell them one for a dollar, I am technically breaking a minor law, but will I get stripped searched on the spot? No

If I buy a carton of beer for $30 and sell it to my father in law for $40 will my house get raided at 4am? No.

If I take an ecstasy tablet or smoke a joint am I likely to start abusing my partner and children, king hit my best friend or smash up the local train station? No. But will I be subjected to a drug dog search if I am at a dance party? Yes. Would I get searched the same way at a hotel when I am drinking? No.

If I have a dependency on heroin or cocaine will I be ostracized from society, labelled a ‘junkie’, stigmatized, discriminated against, persecuted and punished? Yes, unless my name is Keith Richards, George W Bush or Francis Rossi.

However if I am from an abusive, disadvantaged and broken family, if I have to score heroin on the streets and inject in a dirty laneway in North Richmond with my kids watching and then get rid of my needles quickly in someone’s back yard so I won’t be caught by the police who are everywhere and then head off to my job as a street sex worker, then, YES, the community hates me.

And if I try to give up ‘the gear’ my criminal history of drug use will constantly haunt me and be a reminder to my family, prospective employers and my landlord that ‘once a junkie, always a junkie’? Will this drive me back to the life I have only ever known, but despise so much? Probably.

We all choose to use drugs - we live in a drug taking society - but no one I know chose to become the most despised and reviled members of society, especially as heroin users have become. The stigma they wear and discrimination they experience follows them for their entire lives.

I have come to the conclusion after reviewing drug policy history and after working in this field for over 20 years that drug prohibition has failed and will continue to do so.
There’s no better example of this failure than over four hundred people dying from heroin overdose in Australia each year. The equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing annually.

Do we go out of our way to make it safer to use? Yet do we go to any lengths to stop this happening? Obviously not. If we were talking about traffic accidents, drownings or workplace deaths we would be doing all we can to stop this happening. However the community continues to view these deaths as ‘collateral damage’ and frown on any policies that might, as some suggest, ‘send the wrong message’ – such as prescribing heroin for long-term users. Stigma and discrimination toward heroin users permeates the very fabric of society.

You only have to look at the comments made about the death of a young man in NSW at a dance party last weekend. Everyone was to blame for his death; he was at fault, his friends, even the dance party organisers were blamed. Yet the truth is that the substances that are taken at dance parties, particularly ecstasy, are made more harmful because of our prohibition policies which drive their manufacture into the unregulated black market.

We need to change the way the community views illicit drug use and drug users. We need to address the lies, myths and misconceptions that prohibition and the war on drugs have used as propaganda tools.

A step in the right direction would be to redress the balance of how we spend public money on drugs.

Australian governments’ spending on law enforcement, drug treatment and harm reduction was approximately $1.7 billion in 2009/10. Two thirds of this was spent on law enforcement. Treatment received about a fifth, prevention one tenth and harm reduction 2%. Internationally, the USA spends approximately 100 billion dollars annually on enforcing drug control systems.

The ‘Counting the Cost’ Report produced by Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the UK states: ‘Despite increased resources directed to supply-side enforcement, evidence suggests that drug prices, while remaining far higher than legal commodities, have decreased over the past three decades. From 1990 to 2005, for instance, the wholesale price of heroin fell by 77 percent in Europe and 71 percent in the US.’ (http://www.countthecosts.org/seven-costs/wasting-billions-drug-law-enfor...)

Closer to home, the significant impact of the war on drugs on public resources is evident when you look at court system. Let read me to you part of an article from a Herald Sun earlier this week:

‘….. ABS data confirm the predictions of the Auditor-General which are exacerbated by the tough law and order policies implemented by this and prior governments.

Of concern, The Australian Crime Commission notes that during 2011/12, 12,736 Victorians were arrested for consuming drugs, with an additional 3,819 arrested for trafficking drugs…..

Just over 6,000 of these people were arrested for consuming cannabis. These high statistics are played out in a Sentencing Advisory Council report, which notes a 31% increase in drug related arrests over the past decade.

While drug trafficking is a serious offence, a disproportionate large amount of police and justice resources are targeting those consuming drugs; this is likely to be contributing to the capacity crisis highlighted by ….the Auditor-General ….. It is likely to be consuming significant police and Court resources, as well as the significantly limited legal aid. Disturbingly, approximately 40% of those convicted will reoffend again within two years.’

One in three Australians reports that they have tried an illicit drug at some stage. In my estimation it’s probably closer to 50% of the population as under-reporting of illicit drug use is common. ABS research indicates that in 2010 alone we spent around 7.1 billion dollars on cannabis, heroin, cocaine ecstasy and amphetamines. Overall profits are estimated to be in the vicinity of 5.8 billion. So where do these profits go?

Most of the profit from the amphetamine trade in Australia goes into the pockets of criminal groups such as outlaw motor cycle gangs. Heroin profits mostly end up overseas funding political wars and insurgents. In many cases the profits from illicit drug production end up financing other illegal activities such as weapon distribution and people trafficking. Along the way customs officials, police and politicians are paid off and those that stand in the way are summarily dealt with. Just look at Mexico where it is estimated that 60,000 people have died in drug related violence since 2006.

If you think we are immune from this violence here, think again, just look at the drive by shootings and bashings associated with the turf war for the amphetamine trade being conducted by outlaw motor cycle gangs.

Nationally in 2012 Australia21, a non-profit company whose core business is research and development on issues of strategic importance to Australia in the 21st Century, released 2 reports on drugs drawn up after meetings with prominent members of the community. One of the reports was titled ‘Alternatives to Prohibition: Illicit Drugs: How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians’ and proposed that:

‘If we are to reduce the pernicious effects of black market drugs on the Australian community, control of the drug supply system must ultimately be diverted from criminal to civil and government authorities. We must evolve a new approach that acknowledges the powerful economic forces of the drug market, but which is acceptable to the community, and is achievable politically.’

This notion is supported by National Household Surveys that show the community wants drug policies that reduce deaths, disease, crime and corruption. Both reports concluded that global drug prohibition had failed comprehensively. In the spirited media discussion of these reports, few prominent commentators supported drug prohibition.

Mr Mick Palmer, former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Policy during the Tough on Drugs period, said that police in Australia had minimal impact on the drug trade. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition wanted to discuss drug policy in the recent Federal election.

But opioid overdose deaths in Australia are increasing rapidly once again: 350 (2007); 500 (2008); 612 (2009); and 705 (2010). And heroin production in Burma, source of almost all of the heroin reaching Australia, has been rising steadily for several years. Official corruption linked to failed drug prohibition is a significant problem in Australia.

The second highest ranking member of the NSW Crime Commission was convicted for offenses relating to a $300 million drug operation. The former head of the SA Drug Squad died in prison while serving a 26 year sentence for drug trafficking offenses. Australians with persistent nausea and vomiting following cancer chemotherapy are unable to use medicinal cannabis even if conventional medicines have failed. Yet 69% of Australians support medicinal cannabis.

Internationally The Global Commission on Drug Policy - involving 19 major international political and business figures - said in June 2011 that global drug prohibition had failed and a debate around the world was needed about a new policy approach.

Across the world, countries are deviating from the prohibition line. The US states of Colorado and Washington have voted in favour of cannabis legalisation. In South Australia, possession of small quantities of cannabis has been decriminalised. Uruguay is introducing a legal marijuana cultivation business.

It is pointless ignoring this trend. Countries cannot hold back the tide. The best they can do is to understand the problem and follow the evidence of what works.

A debate about drug policy is happening in other countries. Some countries are reforming their approach. In November 2012, Colorado and Washington states passed ballot initiatives by 55/45 to tax and regulate cannabis like tobacco and alcohol. New Zealand is developing a scheme to regulate some illicit drugs. Uruguay's parliament and President are considering how to regulate cannabis.

Australia has to redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue and increase funding for health and social interventions. Cannabis should be taxed and regulated. Reforms should be cautious and evaluated. In summary: the system is broken. We have to talk about it. Our politicians have to talk about drug policy whether they want to or not.
So what do we need?

Firstly evidence-informed policies should be a priority, such as the expansion of harm reduction programs, especially the provision of heroin to long-term users, expansion of methadone programs, greater access to treatment, needle and syringe programs in prisons, supervised injecting facilities all funded through the channelling of funds currently allocated to the criminal justice system put towards health-based responses.

Secondly the removal of laws prohibiting personal use and possession of drugs, particularly ecstasy and marijuana, two drugs regularly consumed daily by thousands of people worldwide with very few harmful consequences.

And eventually, through a step-by-step process, the end of drug prohibition and the introduction of a controlled, regulated supply model.

American Nobel Prize winner Ralph J. Bunche (the first African-American winner) said ‘There are no warlike people--just warlike leaders’ - so I hope our political leaders will one day put an end drug prohibition and stop waging a ‘war on drugs’ against our own un-war like people.

Presentation to the Isocracy Network, Inc., 2013 Annual General Meeting

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on November 22, 2013.


Links for the presentation.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Australia21: Australian Policy on Illicit Drugs

Open Society Foundations:
The Global Commission on Drug Policy:
(May 2013) The War on Drugs and the Hidden Hepatitis C Epidemic
(June 2011) War on Drugs

Links for some of the public health effects.

Cherny, N.I.; Baselga, J.; de Conno, F.; Radbruch L.
"Formulary availability and regulatory barriers to accessibility of opioids for cancer pain in Europe: a report from the ESMO/EAPC Opioid Policy Initiative" Ann Oncol (2010) 21 (3): 615-626 doi:10.1093/annonc/mdp581

Deiss, Robert G.; Rodwell, Timothy C.; Garfein, Richard S.
"Tuberculosis and Illicit Drug Use: Review and Update"
Clin Infect Dis. (2009) 48 (1): 72-82. doi: 10.1086/594126
PMID 19046064 PMC 3110742

Even when barriers to health care access are overcome, adherence to long treatment regimens can be particularly problematic for drug users. IDU [96, 108, 109], HIV seropositivity, [108], homelessness [8, 96, 110], and alcoholism [109, 110] have all been identified as risk factors for failure to complete TB treatment. Crack cocaine users in New York City had the highest rates of both regulatory intervention and detention for treatment completion, and regulatory action was associated with both crack cocaine and IDU [111]. Finally, in a study of 96 South African patients who failed to complete treatment for multidrug-resistant TB, illicit marijuana or sedative (mandrax) use during treatment was the most important factor [112]. The challenge of maintaining high levels of adherence has clear implications for TB control, which may require the provision and coordination of additional services for drug users, including targeted testing and treatment.


Cochrane database reviews have established the efficacy of LTBI treatment in reducing the incidence of TB disease among both HIV-seronegative individuals [129] and HIV-seropositive individuals [130]. Observational studies have shown decreased TB incidence among drug users after 6 months [131, 132] and 12 months [122] of isoniazid treatment. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 9 months of once-daily treatment with isoniazid for HIV-negative individuals or an acceptable alternative of twice-weekly administration of isoniazid as directly observed therapy (DOT) [114].


A number of interventional studies have sought to identify methods for improving TB treatment adherence and completion among drug users. Drug treatment centers that use DOT have emerged as important sites for TB-related services [132–134], with studies demonstrating improved rates of treatment completion [133] and adherence [134] when DOT is provided on site. DOT has also improved drug users' adherence when used at drug treatment centers that combine LTBI treatment with monetary incentives [135–137] or methadone [138] and when used at other locations, including a public health department [139] or via street-based outreach [140]. DOT-based LTBI treatment for drug users has been shown to be cost-effective [141], even when monetary incentives are offered (table 3) [142, 143], which provides further justification for the integration of TB testing and treatment with other services for drug users [144–148].

Great Article and thanks!

Another Australian proposal which outlines policies that have worked and those which have not