War on drugs: dogma rather than real solutions

Like many people of my age (30s) with a large social acquaintance circle comprising a range of demographics, I have been exposed to a broad array of drug use and problems over the last decade or so, and I’m conscious of the ongoing discussions in society about the drugs issue.

I don’t support the “war on drugs” because I don’t think it works. There hasn’t been a reduction in illicit drug use or problems as a result of the weighty focus on law enforcement and it predominantly punishes individuals and small time or middle rung dealers while doing very little to combat manufacturers and distributors. An individual caught with ice ends up with a criminal conviction that impacts on future employment and relationships, only pushing them towards the drug again, while a supplier evades detection and, if caught, has the finances to hire legal expertise to limit conviction and sentencing, then returns to the same life they had beforehand. Ultimately, enormous amounts of money are spent chasing down the smaller people in this big wheel and very little is accomplished in actually breaking down the networks that supply the drugs. The “war on drugs” seems mainly a political tool for control, uniting people against a common enemy when the polls are flagging and helping to promote a culture of fear.

This is particularly evident in the fact that the “war on drugs” is largely reduced to a focus on one particular drug at a time. When I was a teenager and young adult, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was about heroin. I remember the Herald Sun running a dual tally in their daily newspaper: road toll and deaths from heroin. Now, it’s ice. Just as the country was facing a heroin epidemic, it’s now facing an ice epidemic. It’s much easier to unite people against something specific than it is a vague, abstract concept like “drugs”. So, at the moment, ice is a “scourge” on society that is spiralling out of control and we must act instantly to resolve this issue.

Don’t get me wrong: ice, like heroin before it, is a real and substantial problem for the individuals who use it and for the impact their addiction and behaviour has on the health system and society in general. It not only has particularly disastrous consequences from use (compared with a number of other drugs), but it is relatively widespread amongst drug users. The world would be a better place without it and yes, it deserves a degree of focus. But to suggest that it’s the only drug issue facing society at the moment is disingenuous. Alcohol leads to violence, anti-social behaviour and an array of health issues, and its use is extremely widespread. Prescription medications, such as oxycodone, are being used recreationally and resulting in serious addictions and health issues (an article I read said that prescription drug addiciton had overtaken illicit drug addiction in the US). Perhaps most significantly, advances in chemistry and technology have led to a smorgasboard of synthetic party drugs (made of goodness-knows-what) on the market. Meanwhile, the internet enables easy acquisition and has made it more straightforward for people, whether drug manufacturers or individuals, to access information on how to create the drugs.

The problem with such a narrow focus with all the other drugs around is that even if the government manages to plug the ice hole, they’ll turn around to find another hole (or many) in its place. It was in fact the heroin drought that led to the rise of ice in Australia. In the early 2000s the war on terror damaged and then took control of the opium growing regions in Afghanistan that fed the heroin trade. Although people have a “drug of choice”, when that isn’t available they will find something else to use as a crutch/enhancement/to limit withdrawals. Suppliers and dealers exist to make a profit, so if one product isn’t available, they’ll sell something else. When heroin became too hard to come by, ice, which was just making its way into the Australian market after being available in Asia for a number of years, had fertile ground to proliferate. Interruptions in cocaine supply (which is easier to achieve because cocaine is all imported from one continent whereas ice can be manufactured locally or imported from multiple places) also contributed to the rise in ice use. So while the government puts its energy into dealing with the ice problem they are unwittingly providing opportunities for other drugs to develop and proliferate, and perhaps even allowing them to fly under the radar a bit; if they managed to erradicate ice (unlikely), chances are another drug or drugs would just take its place.

Recently, there have been news stories about a drug called flakka (mainly commenting on its use in the US), in much the same way as there were a smattering of stories about the horror of a new drug, ice, just over a decade ago. Flakka acts as a stimulant and also causes delusions – it’s like combining the intensity and aggressiveness of ice with the hallucinogenic component of LSD. (That is NOT meant as a scientific explanation, just as a way of characterising how it makes people act.) There was a story of a guy (in the US) who was unaffected by a taser then tried to stab a police officer with the officer’s own badge then turned around, claimed he was Thor, and tried to have sex with a tree. That is a whole new level of madness. In addition, flakka’s potency means only a very small amount is needed for a high, so it’s not only cheap (in the US around $5 for a dose), but the risk of overdose is significant.

Another group of drugs that has been making the news over the past couple of years is synthetic cannabinoids. These are chemicals that mimic the effects of cannabis, and there are hundreds of variations available. There have been a number of deaths (and possibly more because testing is difficult due to the vast array of versions). It has also been very difficult for the government to legislate against this group of drugs due to the sheer number of different chemicals used. Many were, and some still are, sold legally in adult-oriented stores (eg tobacconists and sex shops) in brightly coloured packages, giving the impression that they’re largely harmless. The problems these particular drugs create are mainly for the individual user (ie their personal health issues and risk of death as opposed to violence against others), but they highlight the extent of possibilities.

I’m not suggesting that flakka or synthetic cannabanoids are about to take ice’s place, but they are examples of a range of newer drugs that could find a foothold. I’m also mindful of the fact that a number of people on the front line of society’s ice problems (ambulance officers, ER doctors) have said that ice is so much worse than heroin. Equally, flakka, and some of the other new synthetics not even discussed here, sound worse than ice.

I’m also not suggesting that we should leave ice alone because the alternative might be worse. Rather, that it will prove nigh on impossible to remove all problem drugs from society and that we should take account of information history has already provided. It defies common sense to believe that a government can beat back all the organised crime that is involved – the bikies, the cartels, the triads. And even if that was somehow taken out of the equation the internet now provides another avenue for acquiring drugs on an individual and dealing level. There is simply no way that can be controlled – China tries and even they haven’t managed it (I suppose we could try the North Korean model, though). Meanwhile, if one drug is eradicated, there’s a dozen more just waiting to take its place. We don’t have the resources to combat them all and anticipate the potential ones. Ultimately, the best solution is to stop people from wanting to use the drugs in the first place.

It’s quite baffling, really, that the two governments who have pushed the hardest on the “war on drugs” (Howard and Abbott) are also the two governments who are the most closely aligned to business, economics and capitalism. Drug supply is a business operating with unrestrained capitalism. It is entirely profit-driven with no moral or ethical constraints preying on the most manipulatable people with a combination of viral and guerilla marketing tactics that portray its product in a way that it will enhance your life (either by making life more bearable or making a good time even better). The only way to stop it is to cut off demand. I would have thought that governments whose very governance tends towards a capitalist business model would see this and take that approach; the fact that they don’t is another indication that the “war on drugs” is merely a political tool.

Cutting off demand means addressing the issues that lead people to take drugs and helping those who use them to remove the need or desire, while also limiting actions that might drive them further into the cycle of drug use (such as giving them a criminal record that limits future options, only encouraging them to turn back to drugs). Education is an important part of this, too, of course. But simply telling people what to do and running fear campaigns don’t work. You’d be hard pushed to find a person in society who hasn’t at some point done something they had been told was wrong or dangerous. An additional benefit is that addressing the issues that lead to demand will also assist in dealing with prescription drug and alcohol problems. Such an approach goes right to the cause of why people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

It also requires taking into account the fact that there are different types of drug users – for example addicts, problem users and occasional recreational users. It is another indication of propaganda that this distinction is rarely made by governments. It is easy for this to be obfuscated with a drug such as ice because it is the everything drug – favoured by many addicts, highly addictive and also a party drug. A person who takes it once may end up in as disastrous a situation as an addict. Flakka appears similar, as do some of the synthetics. But a person who uses a drug once or even occasionally doesn’t identify as an addict and doesn’t necessarily need to go to rehab any more than I do if I drink a whole bottle of wine by myself once. If a group of friends are having a night out and can’t source ice, that isn’t necessarily going to stop them taking something – they’ll just find something else. In focusing so fervently on ice and on addiction in the message, there is at the very least an implicit message to recreational drug users that other drugs are not as serious and the message is not reaching a proportion of its target audience.

Rather than delve into great depth of discussion on the solutions part of the issue, I encourage people to listen to this TED talk, which is a fascinating and enlightening look at the current and alternative models of drug use and addiction: http://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?language=en It also examines the Portuguese model of decriminalisation, addressing drugs as a social and health issue, which has not just seen extremely positive results, but has been far more successful than any of the criminalisation, law enforcement, “war on drugs” models.

The concepts discussed and insights provided in that talk align with the impact of the work done by Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan during their time in Kerobokan prison. Many have commented that the classes and activities they set up along with their personal support provided skills, purpose and a sense of belonging that helped people break the cycle of drugs permanently. This was not just restricted to people within the prison itself, but others from around the community who would attend Kerobokan to participate.

I hope Australia is willing to take a fresh approach to its drug issues, learning from its own past mistakes and alternative methods that are showing success. But ultimately, for that to happen, drugs need to be seen as a genuine health and social issue, rather than a tool for political manipulation, and the discussion needs to be one of substance, not rhetoric based on dogma.

War on drugs: dogma rather than real solutions

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