Decriminalisation to end war on drugs, but at what ultimate cost to the victors?

David Dixon

There’s an emblematic scene in the 2000s American television crime drama, The Wire where three police officers are discussing the illicit drugs trade: “You cannot call this a war on drugs,” one character says. “Why not?” another asks, “because wars end!”

Ending the war on drugs is the theme of a recently-released NSW special commission of inquiry into crystal methamphetamine (“ice”) the debilitating drug that is destroying communities around the State with heavy-users known to attack their families, strangers, and themselves.

The report controversially proposes the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, the statewide expansion of injecting clinics, and drug testing facilities for users at fixed sites. Report author Dan Howard SC claimed that a “chorus” of global experts have repeatedly recommended that illicit drug-use be recognised as a health and social problem, rather than a matter of criminal justice.

That such a damaging, corrosive, and widespread drug (Australia has the highest rates of ice use in the world) could be proposed for decriminalisation in an official report for a supposedly-conservative NSW Government, shows how far down the road to accepting legalisation of all drugs we have moved in recent times.

So, does this mean that 100 years of criminalisation of illegal drugs is out the door and so-called “harm minimisation” is the future?

For those opposed to this increasingly-popular approach, it is worth remembering that the concept of illegal drugs is a fairly modern one.  Up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drug-use whether it be tobacco, alcohol, opium, or cocaine were a matter for individual conscience.

Britain created the opium epidemic in 19th century China so as to weaken the country for foreign intervention, English epic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is supposed to have written his part-completed classic Kubla Khan after an opium dream, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ultra-respectable fictional detective Sherlock Holmes used morphine and cocaine to blunt his over-active mind.

In America after the pain-killer morphine became the new wonder drug of the 19th century, doctors actively-prescribed it with the Union Army alone during the Civil War issuing nearly 10 million opium pills to its soldiers, plus 2.8 million ounces of opium powders and tinctures.

By 1895, morphine and opium powders had led to an addiction epidemic that affected roughly one in 200 Americans. Before 1900, the typical opiate addict in America was an upper-class or middle-class white woman.

Popular drink Coca-Cola, as its name implies, was marketed for its use of cocaine and, in Australia, the pain-killers Bex and Vincent’s were, up until the late 1970s, laced with the addictive analgesic acetophenitidine.

The first drug laws in America, many argue, were aimed purely at racial minorities with the first anti-opium laws in the 1870s directed at Chinese immigrants, anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s at black men in the South, and anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. 

Australia followed a similar pattern with opium smoking (mostly among Chinese immigrants) first becoming illegal in 1905, but widespread concern about drug use was not a public issue until the Vietnam War with the influx of American soldiers seeking recreational drugs also seeing increases in local use.

The concept though of criminalisation of drug-use first became widely-trialled with the Prohibition (of alcohol) amendment to the American Constitution in 1919. As anyone who has seen the 1980s classic movie, The Untouchables knows, this had the effect of enriching hugely-powerful gangs of criminals and associated businessmen (sorry for the redundancy) including Al Capone, and, reportedly, Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the famous American political family.

Once the social costs of this program, and its obvious failures, became apparent, alcohol prohibition gradually became unpopular and was lifted in 1933.

Since that time a range of drugs have been made illegal, ranging from marijuana, heroin (derived from the poppy seed and its raw powder, opium), that sixties favourite, LSD (lysergic acid dieththylamide), invented by accident in a lab in Switzerland in 1938; crack cocaine, speed, and ice.

In amongst all these world-wide efforts, no ultimate success has ever been made in their complete elimination, although Prime Minister John Howard did have amazing success in reducing the number of heroin addicts in Australian in the late 1990s with a heroin shortage seeing use drop dramatically. Previously, the high cost of heroin, sometimes $200 a hit, saw a crime wave from users in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

The claim then of course, is that criminalisation doesn’t work, punishes the victims (that is, users) of these drugs; and that it leads to an incentive for corrupt behaviours in law enforcement due to the huge profits available to distributors.

In support of this argument, one could look at the decriminalisation of gambling and prostitution in Australia.

These used to be two illegal activities that garnered huge profits for illegal operators. There was barely a pub in Australia at one time that did not have an illegal “SP” (“starting price”) bookmaker working more-or-less openly with the profitable-tolerance of the local constabulary. Illegal casinos involving sociopaths like Abe Saffron and George Freeman were also an open-secret in Sydney society.

Prostitution prosecutions also almost invariably captured the exploited women (and sometimes men) who worked at the lowest level of the industry with the often highly-respectable businessmen that ran and profited from them rarely being financially or legally punished for their sins.

Marijuana, once described as a “soft” drug (as opposed to heroin, LSD, cocaine, which were “hard” drugs) has benefited from a similar long campaign as that carried-out for gambling and prostitution to see it legalised. More than a dozen different states in America have now followed this path, as well as the Australian Capital Territory, (ACT) to a limited degree.

The legalisation of medical cannabis for those with chronic health conditions is seen by many critics as another thread in this campaign.

The real-life experience of these jurisdictions has made an interesting case study in legislation. In almost all these regions, drug-use of the formerly illegal substance has increased with drug deaths and related crime all reducing dramatically.

Marijuana use is now so acceptable in many parts of America that Democrat front-runner Bernie Sanders recently advocated taking control of the legal supply off “giant corporations” and funding small black-owned cooperatives in America to spread the profits around.

However, that is not the whole story; some states have seen since the decriminalisation of marijuana an increase in drivers being caught with high levels of the drug in their system, with a correlated increase in vehicle accidents involving users.

There is also evidence that the number of heavy-users admitted to psychiatric wards with symptoms of schizophrenia, psychosis, and depression, has increased.

In this vein, critics of legislation of drugs say that eliminating total use of the proscribed drugs was never the point. They argue, human nature being what it is, criminalising drug-use was never going to fully eliminate their impact. Murder, white collar crime, robbery, and theft have never been eliminated by laws being passed against them. The law is partly a statement that a community believes that these crimes are harmful to individuals and that those who are caught participating in them are liable to criminal prosecution.

A law also has another purpose; it projects what a society as a group through their elected officials believe defines what is acceptable in that society; many laws are in fact aspirational projections of public belief.

The fact that individuals no longer go down their local market-place to buy slaves or leave baby girls on mountain-sides to die does not mean that these actions are still not prohibited in our society.

The increasing-liberalisation of most western societies though is likely to see increased calls and pressure on parliaments to gradually relax drug laws.

But as for the 19th century laissez faire (French: “let them do”) liberals before us, there is likely to again come a time when the devastating toll of drugs on individuals, families, communities, and our society as a whole has to be addressed.

Like in the 20th century, politicians and community leaders will again decide that the cost, disruption, and corrupting effect of prohibiting certain drugs for personal use, is a price ultimately worth paying.

As noted by the sardonic and world-weary character on The Wire, this is a war that never ends…

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Related Posts