TIME TO GET RID OF EXPENSIVE WHITE ELEPHANT POLICIES

Alex Wodak, Director Australia21


Image by Gras Grun


Australia’s 2019/20 bushfires destroyed 20% of her trees compared to the 2% usually destroyed every summer: a wake up call that climate change isn’t coming – it’s already here. It seemed as though Australia was being punished for denying the reality of this and other serious existential threats.

Kicking the can down the road is what often happens when mediocre political leaders don’t know what to do with difficult problems. Or when the only appropriate policy options might have significant political costs. Australia21 is about finding our way when complex and difficult (or ‘wicked’) problems seem all but intractable. COVID-19 reminds us even more powerfully that we have to lift our game.

Almost all countries in the world have experienced serious problems related to illicit drugs in recent decades. Growing numbers of political, community and law enforcement leaders in Australia and many other countries have said publicly that our drug policy is broken and cannot be made more effective by a tweak here or there. There have just been too many deaths, too much crime, too many lives wrecked and too many broken hearted families. Laws criminalising drug use intended to protect the community have expensively made a bad problem into a much worse problem. We need to do more than just a minor repair. We have to go back to the key questions. What is our community trying to achieve with mood altering drugs? What are the best ways of achieving those goals? How can we get from over here to over there?


More than half a century of punishing people for using drugs the majority fears or dislikes has only seen the drug market get bigger and more dangerous. Calls for reform have become louder and now come more often.


It’s time for a rethink not only because Australia’s punitive drug policy is ineffective, has serious unintended negative consequences and is cost ineffective. But also because it’s based on a false premise. Surely it’s just as wrong for the majority to punish people with a minority taste in drugs (absent harm to others) as it is for the heterosexual majority to punish people with a minority preference for same-sex sex (with consenting adults in private). The international drug control system was not based on a careful review of the benefits and harms of the options available. It grew out of a messy international process driven largely by one country, the United States.


There have been numerous major official inquiries and Royal Commissions into drug policy in Australia in recent decades. These have concluded with growing confidence that punitive drug policies have failed and are futile. Similar conclusions have been reached in comparable inquiries in other countries Australia often compares itself with. It is clear that most of the political elite have also worked this out for themselves long ago.


Social policy reform often takes a long time. South Australia was the first jurisdiction in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality. That was in 1973. But marriage equality in Australia had to wait almost another half century even though a clear majority of the community supported extending to same sex couples who love each other the same right to marriage enjoyed by heterosexual couples. A clear majority in Australia has supported Voluntary Assisted Dying for decades. But our politicians have also kept kicking this issue into the long grass.


What is different now about drug policy is that other countries are starting to act. In 2001 Portugal scrapped criminal sanctions for people found in possession of personal quantities of drugs while also expanding and improving health and social support for people with serious drug problems. In 2014 Uruguay became the first country in the world to start regulating recreational cannabis. In 2018, Canada became the first G7 country to also start taxing and regulating recreational cannabis. Eleven of the 50 US states (plus Washington DC), accounting for 20% of the US population, now tax and regulate recreational cannabis. On 19 September New Zealanders will vote in two referendums to consider regulating recreational cannabis and allowing legal Voluntary Assisted Dying.

Australia21 has issued four reports on Australia’s drug policy. We conclude that current policy should not be continued and that better options await us. Portugal showed in 2001 that combining scrapping penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use with expanding & improving treatment, care & support was a huge improvement. Many countries are now moving incrementally in the same direction.

Despite the ample discussion about the urgent need for drug law reform in Australia, change is blocked at every turn. The longer difficult problems are left, the harder they are to respond to. A plethora of official enquiries have been conducted. We know what works and what doesn’t. But we continue to sink substantial sums of taxpayer’s funds into punitive approaches to drugs that we know don’t work.

Australia21 accepts that drug law reform has to be slow, cautious & incremental. Reforms have to be carefully evaluated. Other countries are now starting to reform their drug laws. It’s time Australia stopped procrastinating. COVID-19 required massive government spending. But that means governments cannot continue expensive dysfunctional white elephant policies indefinitely.

Accordingly Australia21 calls for a plebiscite on regulating recreational cannabis. This was the mechanism used to decide Marriage Equality. Let’s be inspired by our Kiwi cousins. Australia allowed medicinal cannabis in 2016. Politicians and the community have wanted that program to expand and improve it has been.

Australia should redefine drugs as primarily a health & social issue. Some people with severe drug problems have suffered dreadful abuse in early childhood. Let’s not forget that. The 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse showed that many children have suffered appalling sexual or physical abuse and that some of these children then turned to illicit drugs to ease their pain. Of course dreadful childhood trauma was not the explanation for illicit drug use in every case. But surely this should be a reminder to treat people with drug problems with more compassion and less punishment. Above all, it’s time for a community debate about our failed drug laws. It’s time to recognise that while Australia allows so many young people to despair about their future, the appetite for mood altering drugs will remain high. And if there is no legal source for the drugs demanded, other sources will emerge, beyond the control of government.


It’s time to try to do better.


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Australia21 is an independent, not for profit think tank. We promote fair, sustainable and inclusive public policy through evidence-based research.

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