For the controlled production, supply and use of illicit drugs

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This policy discussion paper was adopted at the Victorian state conference in 2010.  I am submitting it as a draft to the national pre-conference discussion now in the hope we can refine and vote on a national policy on illicit drugs at the upcoming national conference in January 2013. It only focuses on current illicit, psycho-active drugs, such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs.

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“It may be that I don't live to see it because I'm already many years old, but I know that someday drugs will be legalized and it will be shown that we were right.”

Gustavo de Grieff, Former Attorney General of Colombia

Background information or preamble

A 2010 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey on drug use reports that about 7 million people in Australia have used illicit drugs in their lifetime and close to 3 million had used an illicit drug in the 12 months before the survey. Cannabis was by far the most commonly used recent and over a lifetime drug, followed second by ecstasy and hallucinogens third for most common use for lifetime use.

People take drugs for many different reasons; one of them is to have fun.  

Very short history of prohibition

Prohibition of currently illicit drugs has not always been the case in Australia. Heroin, for example, was legal and a frequently described analgesic in Australia until prohibition the mid 1950s. In its pure form, Heroin was also a favored drug used by doctors up until the banning of heroin importation in 1953 to help women manage their pain in child birth because it had no side effects on the baby (www.nuaa.org.au).

It is now widely recognised that the prohibition/criminalisation of non-medical supply, production and use of illegal drugs has been a dismal failure. Heroin use in Australia has in fact increased since prohibition from five kilograms per one million in 1951 to 350 kilograms per million by the late 1990s (www.nuaa.org.au).

Drug prohibition is arbitrary. In some countries drugs that are banned here, such as cannabis, are legal while in others drugs that are legal here, such as alcohol are banned. Alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s led to an increase in criminal violence and corruption, while its ending did not cause a rise in alcoholism.

Nearly 50% of opium is currently legally produced by 18 countries for pharmaceutical purposes and a smaller percentage of legal production of coca and cocaine also takes place (www.tdpf.org.uk). As a matter of fact, Tasmania supplies about half of the world's legal pharmaceutical-grade narcotics material. The Tasmanian government's Infrastructure and Resource Information Service explains that poppy farming is increasingly recognized as a lucrative cash crop and as part of cropping rotations for local farmers (http://www.iris.tas.gov.au).

Prohibition and organised crime

Prohibition has led to some drugs becoming high value commodities, such as heroin and cocaine, which has lead to the development of a murderous and criminal industry with profoundly detrimental social, political, environmental and economic consequences.  

It is believed that illicit drugs and arms are the biggest items in international trade. Government and police corruption and law enforcement agents' involvement in the illegal drug trade are well documented. Afghanistan, which produces 93% of global illegal opium, is a good case in point.

These negative effects are especially pronounced in producer and trading countries, such as Colombia, Mexico where tens of thousands of people get murdered every year by the drug mafia or through the ill-conceived 'war on drugs' (http://www.narconews.com).

Prohibition, prison and costs

Prohibition of drugs and tougher sentencing laws have increased the size of our prison population. Even though only around 10% prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes, such as assault and murder (http://www.cla.asn.au), Victoria's prison population has increased by close to 50% over the last decade.  

Estimates are that 50-80% of Victorian prisoners have a drug or alcohol dependence; and 44% of sentenced male prisoners and 60% of sentenced female prisoners reported that they had committed their offence(s) under the influence of drugs and/or to support a drug habit (www.smartjustice.org.au).

Misguided law and order policies in relation to drug offences have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Research conducted by the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Melbourne, estimated that the Australian Governments spent $3.2 billion on illicit drugs in 2002-03; of which law enforcement and crime responses accounted for the 75% of expenditure with health and social measures getting less than 25% (www.turningpoint.org.au).

According to government figures it costs close to $100,000 per year to keep a person in prison and the Victorian government's annual spending on prisons has increased 186% over the past decade to $640 million in 2010/11 (www.dtf.vic.gov.au)   

Prohibition and health

Criminalisation and associated lack of access to clean injecting equipment has helped spread of infectious illnesses such as Hepatitis C and HIV. In Victoria 40% of prisoners have Hepatitis C. Thousands of people have also lost their lives through preventable drug overdoses because the strengths and quality of the products are unknown.

Stigma and discrimination associated with illicit drug use has also created real barriers in relation to accessing critical health and social services for drug users.  Some people report having unused needles and syringes taken by police and/or used as the basis for threats and harassment ( www.aivl.org.au).

Draft policy

  • Socialist Alliance recognises that the use of illicit substances is a reality in Australia and around the world.
  • Socialist Alliance recognises that drugs -- legal, as well as illegal - can create significant harm for the individual and the community as a whole.
  • Socialist Alliance believes that Australia's current drug laws have compounded and increased the adverse health, social and economic effects of drug use in Australia.
  • Socialist Alliance supports drug policies that are evidence, human rights and social justice based, focusing on individual and societal wellbeing and not political and religious agendas.
  • Socialist Alliance does not believe that decriminalization is sufficient to address the vast negative effects associated with illicit drugs. Decriminalisation will keep consumers out of prison but does not address the highly profitable drug trade nor the consequential corruption by governments and authorities. Decriminalisation also leaves drug users highly vulnerable to the bad quality of drugs which can have lethal consequences.

Policy details

Socialist Alliance supports the vast array of research conducted which suggests that the best and most humane way to minimise drug harms is through legal regulation.

Socialist Alliance does not support an immediate, uncontrolled legalisation of prohibited drugs (based on free market principals), which would potentially be little better than prohibition.

Drug regulation in combination with state of the art research could offer a range of management options which can be adjusted depending on local priorities and needs.  

Socialist Alliance believes that the legal regulation of current illicit drug use and supply can help remove stigma and discrimination and provide the basis for a policy based on health promotion and harm minimisation.   

Regulation

  • Legal regulation and associated responsibilities to be shifted from the criminal justice system to the public health system
  • Development of a series of models for drug provision, from prescription, to pharmacy sales, licensed sales, licensed premises and unlicensed sales.  The models to be based on evidence and assessment of risks
  • State governments to set and enforce standards, oversee and inspect every aspect through expert and consumer committees : growing/manufacturing, pricing, packaging, strength and purity levels, cleanliness and security of facilities
  • Ban on advertising and marketing

Other harm minimisation strategies

  • Invest the billions of dollars currently spend on law enforcement and crime responses to be diverted to medical treatment for drug depended users and educational campaigns on the safe use of drugs
  • Increase availability of Needle and Syringe Programs (such as needle exchange programs and medically supervised injecting facilities) - including for people in custody
  • Make Narcan (naloxone) available as over the counter medication to reduce the likelihood of death from opiod (e.g. heroin) overdoses
  • Invest in and support research and trials of harm minimisation programs
  • Address underlying causes for drug dependency, such as poverty, social isolation, racism, family violence
  • Support a health system that provides holistic care
  • Develop community reintegration programs including housing and support for people to move people out of the prison system
  • I would like to thank friends, comrades, drug liberalisation activists and health practitioners for their valuable input to this draft document.

Research

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users' League (AIVL)

Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre

Department of Treasury and Finance

Smart Justice

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

The Narco News Bulletin

Civil Liberties Australia

Infrastructure and Resource Information Service (IRIS)

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