Governments needs to explore alternative to prohibitionist drug policies, says report

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 05 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2610
  1. Melissa Sweet
  1. 1Sydney

In Australia, two former federal health ministers who served in conservative governments, other senior public figures, and leading health experts have put their names to a new report calling for an end to prohibitionist drug policies.

The report was released this week by not for profit think tank Australia21. It arose out of a round table meeting held earlier this year in response to a 2011 statement by the Global Commission on drug policy urging all countries to revisit their drug policies in view of the failure of the “war on drugs.”

The report calls on governments to explore alternatives to prohibition and says: “By maintaining prohibition and suppressing or avoiding debate about its costs and benefits, it can be argued justifiably that our governments and other community leaders are standing idly by while our children are killed.”

By criminalising the supply and use of certain drugs, it says that governments everywhere have driven their production and consumption underground and have fostered the development of a criminal industry that is corrupting civil society and governments.

“By defining the personal use and possession of certain psychoactive drugs as criminal acts, governments have also avoided any responsibility to regulate and control the quality of substances that are in widespread use,” the report says.

“Large amounts of public funds are allocated to a failed law and order approach to drug use. These resources would be better directed to managing drug use as a health and social issue as we do with nicotine and alcohol.”

The report says there are signs of an international push for change: “The move against prohibition is gathering momentum in other countries across the ideological spectrum as communities around the world place responsibility for the costs of prohibition where it belongs: with those legislators who continue, by default, to support the international prohibition approach.”

The report quotes a former New South Wales (NSW) premier, Bob Carr (who has become a federal senator and foreign minister since contributing to it): “An issue that worried me while I was in NSW politics was the police hitting railway stations with sniffer dogs. It was marijuana that was the focus. I did not think it was the best use of police time.”

A former federal health minister, Michael Wooldridge, said: “The key message is that we have 40 years of experience of a law and order approach to drugs and it has failed.”

Another former federal health minister, Peter Baume, said: “Many people who think of themselves as the beneficiaries of prohibition are really net losers. Parents are much more at risk of losing their children under prohibition than they would be if there was some kind of system where we had some measure of control over illicit drugs.”

Nicholas Cowdery, director of public prosecutions for NSW from 1994 to 2011, said: “I am strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling, and taxing all drugs. A first step towards such a regime could be decriminalisation, similar to the approach adopted 10 years ago in Portugal or an adaptation of that approach.”

Mick Palmer, a former Australian federal police commissioner, said it was easy to find evidence of the harms caused by prohibition.

The report aims to encourage a wide ranging debate rather than proposing specific policies and says the onus is on governments and the community to develop better approaches.

However, the Australian government has not backed the report’s recommendations, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and attorney general Nicola Roxon telling journalists they did not support changes to the law.

But the report has achieved at least one aim: of generating widespread media coverage and discussion.

Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, told ABC radio that current policies are not working and “it’s time for the conversation” about alternatives.

Australia21 aims to develop new frameworks of understanding for complex multidisciplinary problems and is chaired by a former federal secretary of defence, Paul Barratt.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2610