I’m eating dinner in a café in Bairro Alto, the charming cobblestoned old quarter of Lisbon, on a mild spring night. Just outside, three drug dealers are working the corner. The oldest is about fifteen, the youngest maybe eleven, and they’re selling little bags of grass, hash, coke or heroin. I know the menu, because they offered it to me as I walked by on my way in. Occasionally a policeman will wander past, nod at them and walk on.
A window on the second floor of the squat apartment block above them opens up and an old lady leans out. She yells something at the dealers in Portuguese, they yell something back and she throws a black plastic bag down to them. The youngest dealer picks it up and sprints off with it, and I blink, certain I’ve just seen a sweet little old lady execute a Baltimore-style stash-house dead drop. Curiosity gets the better of me and I ask the lead dealer what was in the bag.
‘Garbage,’ he says, baffled by my question. ‘Senhora is old. She can’t walk the stairs. We take her garbage to the bin. Wouldn’t you?’
I feel a bit of a nebbish for asking, but in my defence, where I come from, smack dealers aren’t so civic minded. Of course, where I come from, smack is illegal.
In 2001 Portugal fully decriminalised personal drug use. For people caught with no more than a ten-day supply of marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine there would be no criminal arrest, no prosecution, and no conviction or prison sentences. Instead, users are summoned before an administrative body called the Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, where a panel of three—comprising lawyers, social workers and medical professionals—determines a sentence, which can be a small fine, community service or counselling. Drugs aren’t legal, but they aren’t quite illegal either. Authorities will try to dissuade users, and if they feel the need, they will monitor individuals over a period of time and take measures to prevent further harm. For example, if someone is unable to stop driving while under the influence of drugs, they might take away their driver’s licence until such time as they can. Traffickers are still sent to prison, or fined, but for more than a decade Portugal has treated drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
The switch was a last-ditch effort from a country suffering a decades-long drug epidemic. In 1999, nearly 1 per cent of the population were fully fledged heroin addicts. HIV rates skyrocketed, and Portugal reported the highest rate of drug-related AIDS and drug-related deaths in the European Union. In the five years following decriminalisation, problematic drug use plummeted. New HIV infections among injecting users fell by 17 per cent and heroin-related deaths by more than half. The number of people undergoing medical treatment for opiate addiction rose from 6040 to 14,877, a burden to the medical establishment, but paid for by money saved on law enforcement.
Initial fears that Portugal would lose a generation to drugs, or become a haven for drug tourism, didn’t eventuate. Rather, existing drug users were able to secure their networks of supply and manage their habits without the extra anxiety of breaking the law, which helps them hold down jobs, navigate family life and generally function better as citizens. At night, wandering through touristy parts of Lisbon, the dealers who approach are the same twitchy ne’er-do-wells who lurk outside metro stations the world over. They target tourists, and do it in a rushed, sleazy way. Most will try to sell tourists drugs, then a watch, then, like one enterprising chap I encountered, thrust a fistful of hashish into my coat pocket then claim he is a policeman and demand a bribe. At a glance, today’s street-level drug market in Lisbon resembles a struggling cottage industry, full of defeated petty criminals hawking a product that’s losing its glamour. If you look elsewhere in the world, things are different.
Australians have always been fond of all manner of intoxicants: our first currency was a patchy combination of captured foreign coins and rum. We were the nation that figured out you can smoke a cane toad. In some circles former prime minister Bob Hawke is as widely remembered for holding the Guinness World Record for skolling two and a half pints of beer in eleven seconds as he is for anything he did in office. We also spend more per capita on recreational drugs than any other country. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that $7.1 billion was spent on illegal drugs in 2010—more than we spent on clothes.
In 2009–10, federal and state governments spent a total of $1.7 billion in response to illicit drug use in Australia, with two-thirds of that on law enforcement. Last year a record 23.8 tonnes of illicit drugs were seized nationally. The number of detections of MDMA (ecstasy) increased almost eight-fold, more cocaine was seized at entry points than ever before and the number of amphetamine-type arrests reached 16,828, the highest in a decade. A record 809 clandestine drug labs were detected nationally, two-thirds of which were in residential areas. A lot of people are getting caught with drugs and going to jail, but it’s not denting Australians’ enthusiasm for taking drugs, or their social cost, which was estimated to be $8.2 billion in 2004–05. According to the Australian Crime Commission, at least one Australian dies of an illicit drug overdose every day. Every year, more are killed by opiate-drug overdose as heroin becomes scarcer; in 2010 it was 705 individuals.
Inasmuch as Australia is fighting a war on drugs, we are losing. Australia is a wealthy nation, with a rich tradition of drug abuse and binge behaviour, and traditional methods of combating drug abuse are expensive, and flawed. Portugal dealt with a drug problem that was destroying its citizens by abandoning prohibition. Through changing the rules, the Portuguese changed the conversation about drugs, and then the reality of the problem. It’s an approach that has been closely watched by many other countries struggling with their own drug problems, including us.
On 2 June 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy held a press conference. The panel of luminaries included former UN secretary general Kofi Annan; former US secretary of state George Schultz; former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker; former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland; and, smiling from the proverbial front row, Sir Richard Branson. Together they announced, ‘The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.’ By way of alternative they recommended ‘decriminalising drug use by those who do no harm to others’, which energised the debate for drug-law reform around the world.
‘We’re now at a stage where the case for global drug prohibition has collapsed and more and more people now accept that drug prohibition hasn’t worked, isn’t working and never will work,’ says president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Dr Alex Wodak. He is one of the most notable advocates for changing drug law in Australia and has been active in the field since 1986, when he opened Australia’s first needle exchange. As a physician and the director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Dr Wodak has had a long career in investigating strategies for harm reduction.
He points out that over the past half-century, as domestic and international penalties for drug offences have, for the most part, grown increasingly punitive, demand, production and consumption of illegal drugs has only increased, with no real decrease in availability. ‘The only conclusion you can draw is, while prohibition has been the global drug policy, the Australian drug policy, the market has gotten much bigger and much more dangerous.’ With decades of experience in drug health, Dr Wodak is adamant that any kind of war on drugs is impossible to win. ‘To ban a commodity is to create a clandestine market in it. We have to accept that we are never going to eradicate the black market; the best we can do is reduce it to a very small size.’
The countryside around Nimbin is absurdly beautiful. On a mild winter day, from when the sun reaches its zenith to when it sinks below the tree line, the hills and valleys are drenched in soft golden light. It looks like a soft-focus watercolour of heaven from a religious pamphlet, and it’s easy to see why the first wave of Australian hippies settled here. In 1973, thousands of students, alternative life-stylers and assorted hippies congregated in an economically declining NSW dairy town for the ten-day countercultural Aquarius Festival. At the end of the festival, many of them stayed, pooling resources to buy property and form communes.
The counterculture attracted wanderers from across Australia and the world. Along with new-age lifestyles, they brought less savoury hippy accoutrements: tie-dye, fishermen pants and drug dealers. Travellers on the backpacker trail started arriving, to sample what tourists call ‘the Nimbin experience’, and an industry sprang up. Now the main street of the town is devoted to pot, with the passion usually reserved for adolescent boys, from the psychedelic mandalas covering every storefront to the thriving street trade in drugs. In practice, this means that Nimbin exists in a state of de facto decriminalisation. A few times a day, shuttles from Byron Bay, seventy kilometres to the east, deposit busloads of tourists onto the main street, who wander out to be met by the dozen or so dealers who hang about the high street. Most buy a bag of grass and hop directly on the bus back to Byron; some stay for a few days or months, or forever.
Michael Balderstone has lived in Nimbin for three decades. He heads the Hemp Embassy, a paraphernalia store and information centre, which acts as a resource centre for people curious about the counterculture, or who need help with drug problems. You’ll find Balderstone in or around the embassy giving advice on responsible drug use through his bushy, smoke-stained beard. The embassy is housed in an old weatherboard cottage off the main drag, about 200 metres from the police station, whose local officers face a more or less impossible task. ‘We’ve got nine police in our tiny village, but they haven’t got a chance, mate, look around you,’ Balderstone tells me.
Seconds after climbing out of my car, a teenager offers me grass, then, as I demur, hash, acid, pills and speed. The same thing happens ten metres up the road, then again and again. On a first pass of the street, it would be easy to mistake everyone in Nimbin for a dealer. A friend tells a story about when her uncle, a straight-laced rural Catholic, passed through Nimbin on a road trip he came out singing its praises. ‘Every single person I met offered me morning smoke-o!’ he claimed, baffled. ‘I’ve never been to such a friendly place before.’ The uncle, who’d never touched a drug in his life, couldn’t understand why everyone in this little NSW town was inviting him for lamingtons and a cup of tea.
It’s intimidating at first, as the touts swirl and push, but if you stay a little while in town you notice the same rhythms of the ramshackle service industries that pop up in backpacker towns all around the world. They are resourceful locals, making a buck, like anywhere else. ‘They’re all town folk, pretty much,’ Balderstone says of the touts offering drugs. ‘The majority haven’t got product, they’re just runners. They go pick it up and in return get a smoke, or ten bucks, or a beer.’
Small deals in cafés and side streets, and larger buys, are directed to the ‘Lane Boys’, who hang out in Rainbow Lane, an alleyway off the side of the Hemp Museum. If a police car trundles up the road, or an undercover officer is spotted, then someone yells ‘Taxi,’ and the call ripples up the street; anyone holding drugs clears out.
In a recent News Limited article, local officers who asked not to be identified spoke about their frustration with the unique difficulties of policing a town where lawlessness is so deeply embedded in the community. ‘A lot of the boys have grown up here. Their parents were hippies and they’ve become the dealers.’
Balderstone says it was inevitable. ‘When we were kids we were all idealistic, we would share the sacred weed. But our kids, who had grown up living out of op-shops with no money, suddenly realised they could make money from weed.’ Over time, the street trade expanded to include LSD and heroin, and, as outlaws from across Australia came to cash in, crystal methamphetamine and violence. Balderstone raised his children here, and understands the challenges of growing up in Nimbin. ‘It’s scary bringing up kids here. They’re exposed to everything and there are a lot of characters who get attracted to illegality and easy money. Prohibition has created this massive criminal world and now there are opportunities for all kinds of criminals,’ he says.
The Hemp Embassy was founded in part to provide legal advice and support for a generation Balderstone knew would struggle with the law. ‘We saw the trouble coming. It’s in my face every day, the shocking consequences of drugs and prohibition. I watch these good kids grow up and go to jail.’
At the front of the embassy, helpful, gently stoned staff offer advice and pamphlets on responsible drug use, while out the back, apparatchiks from the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party (HEMP) fight a hearts and minds campaign. Running on a single issue, they send out press releases, contact policymakers and make phone calls to wrangle preference deals with other minor parties. Before long, it becomes apparent just how much time and energy these people devote to the issue of marijuana and the law. Many of them have lived lives entirely shaped by pot, by choice or fate or a mixture of both. One HEMP functionary was arrested at nineteen with two plants. He was convicted and spent six months in prison, an event he describes only half-jokingly as ‘The start of my welding career’. ‘If the government were serious about harm minimisation they would end prohibition,’ Balderstone tells me. ‘Talk to the cops who’ve worked with drugs for a while, and they’ll tell you the same thing. Of course they can’t; they’d lose their jobs.’
Neville Plush spent thirty-two years in the NSW police force, finishing his career as the sergeant of Nimbin police station before retiring on stress leave. He now works as a welder and handyman and doesn’t look like an apologist for drug culture. Heavily built, dressed in work clothes, he has the watchful eyes and thoughtful way of speaking you find in retired soldiers and cops. He laments a time when you could solve a hostage situation by kicking in the door, misses corporal punishment in school, and worries about a generation being raised without respect for women and the elderly. ‘My views on drugs are that it’s a victimless crime, and users are only harming themselves. I just see that we put far too much emphasis and way too much money into law enforcement where it could be better spent on other avenues.’
Plush estimates that he spent 70 per cent of his time on drug enforcement. ‘That includes alcohol, illicit and prescribed drugs, so as a policing issue you’re looking at a whole myriad of things. As far as I’m concerned alcohol is the worst of the bloody lot.’ The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates tangible costs related to alcohol are around $10.8 billion annually, and account for 3.8 per cent of the burden of disease among Australian males (compared to 0.7 per cent for females). If you factor in the cost of drink-driving, assault and general mayhem caused by drunks you’re looking at an annual bill of $36 billion.
There is deep-seated cultural reluctance to criticise alcohol consumption in Australia, as it’s seen as an individual’s right and responsibility to regulate their own drinking. Yet the onus of individual responsibility in intoxicant use does not extend to illegal drugs. ‘The brain doesn’t know whether a drug is legal or not,’ says Professor Andrew Lawrence, Head of the Behavioural Neuroscience Division and Associate Director of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health:
Whenever I talk to people, they have this notion that with illegal drugs the addiction is somehow different to legal drugs. Most people know a smoker who has repeatedly gone through this cycle of quitting, and relapse—everyone thinks that’s normal. ‘Oh, it’s very hard to stop smoking.’ That is addiction in a nutshell. That is what’s happening to a heroin addict, or an alcoholic or a methamphetamine addict. To treat one as a criminal problem and one as a health problem is farcical.
Lawrence heads a laboratory that models chronic addiction behaviour. His team are trying to map the circuitry in the brain that is responsible for the transition from casual drug use to dependence and addiction. Their research, and that of their colleagues around the world, suggests that the brain is far more adaptable than previously thought, and that chronic drug use can rewire the neural circuitry to encourage further drug use, making regular users more prone to risk taking, poor decision making, and cravings. He says it’s quite clear that addiction is a brain disorder, just like Alzheimer’s or stroke. ‘It’s not a form of moral weakness; that view should have disappeared years ago. I’m not a proponent for legalisation of illicit drugs; nevertheless I do believe that drug addiction, substance abuse, should be dealt with as a health issue, not a criminal issue.’
When Plush was sergeant of Nimbin Police Station, he found the same thing. When dealing with drug users, he had better results when, instead of locking people up, he learned to look past dreadlocks and beards and level with people. He says that when he broke down an adversarial attitude and became associated with the community it made him a better class of police officer. ‘It’s as simple as looking past someone’s heroin addiction and saying, “G’day, Bill.” Then that person is going to go, Shit. Sarge knows who I am, I’d better be a little bit more cautious. That was the only way you could do something, to keep chipping away.’
Dr Caitlin Hughes is a criminologist and research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC). She works to improve drug policy by identifying what works from around the world and influencing policymakers. She studies the Portuguese model of decriminalisation extensively, and believes similar measures could work in Australia. ‘It would be good to at least raise the debate about whether criminal penalties could be removed in relation to small-scale use and possession.’ There is some precedent; as of 2008 there were fifty-two different diversionary schemes operating across Australia. Dr Hughes points to the success of the NSW Cannabis Cautioning Scheme in which minor offenders are given a warning and a telephone number for cannabis counselling, but no conviction. ‘That saves police time, and those diverted through the scheme are less likely to be detected for another offence than those given a criminal conviction.’
Extensive research suggests that prison doesn’t straighten out addicts. Users can still get drugs in prison and, out of necessity, they often engage in much riskier behaviour. ‘Certainly the research that I’m looking at, worldwide, very much does show that the lack of access to clean needles and syringes means very high rates of sharing,’ Hughes told me. Prison is also an excellent place to pick up other, worse, criminal habits.
As of 2009, recidivism rates were at about 58 per cent—once entering the prison system, convicted individuals have a greater chance of returning for a later crime than of going straight. At present, 10 per cent of prisoners have a drug charge as their primary offence. As it stands, Australia’s efforts to stop drug crime create more criminals, which is a poor investment in law and order. Consider also that incarceration is expensive; net expenditure on prisons is more than $2.6 billion per annum, largely on incarcerating repeat offenders.
For some offenders, no amount of prison is going to straighten them out, so the buck is passed. According to Neville Plush, until quite recently it was unofficial policy for NSW corrective services to send people with difficult drug and alcohol or mental health issues to Nimbin. ‘If you got out of jail and had nowhere to go, Corrective Services would give [you] a rail ticket to Lismore and tell [you], “Go to Nimbin, they’ll look after you.” So we ended up with a hell of a lot of problems from across the nation, without the infrastructure or funding to bloody deal with it.’
In 2013, Assistant Commissioner Andrew Crisp, one of Victoria’s most senior police officers, urged the government to treat drug abuse as a health issue, rather than a law and order problem. ‘Police are an agency of last resort; we’re left to pick up the pieces. At times there is too much emphasis on police.’
On 8 February 1914 the New York Times ran an editorial by a Dr Edward William, with the headline ‘Negro cocaine “fiends” are a new southern menace’. Using police reports and anecdotal evidence, William explored the rise of cocaine use among African Americans in the southern United States as a response to prohibition. Unable to procure alcohol, the ‘drunken negro’ turns to cocaine, which makes him violent, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Worse, argued William, is that when given cocaine, they developed improved marksmanship with firearms and developed superhuman strength, which made them immune to bullets, shrugging off direct shots to the heart. ‘The drug produces several other conditions that make the “Fiend” a peculiarly dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to … the “knock down” effects of fatal wounds.’ The solution to the bulletproof ‘cocaine nigger’, argued William, was to provide police with bigger guns. As a result, southern lawmen traded their .32 service weapons for a more emphatic .38.
A century later, not much has changed with this approach to prohibition. The drugs are still around, and the guns keep getting bigger. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the ‘War on Drugs’, starting decades of successive campaigns, foreign military aid and military intervention undertaken by the United States to define and reduce the illegal drug trade. Since then, while illegal drugs worldwide have only become more available, the United States has come to enjoy the highest reported rate of incarceration per capita in the world: with only 5 per cent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 per cent of its prisoners, about half of whom are there on drug charges.
If a real war on drugs is being fought anywhere, it is in Mexico, where open warfare between rival narco-traffic cartels and the government has led to between 60,000 and 90,000 deaths and a continued state of civil unrest, with a steep rise in extortion and violent crime. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, by the 1990s the illegal drugs trade had become a US$400 billion a year industry, on a par with big oil and the legal arms trade, and it has only grown since then. The war on drugs, regarded by much of the world as a dismal failure, is fuelled by basic assumptions about the effectiveness of prohibition—assumptions that Australia has also accepted for half a century.
Illegal drugs, like any desirable commodity, are priced according to demand and availability. Scarcity drives up prices, which drives up profits. In Australia, drugs are highly desirable, and difficult to import, which makes Australia one of the most lucrative markets in the world to sell drugs.
Drugs enter the country by aeroplane and container ship, smuggled inside furniture and consumer goods and handbags and human mules. They are dropped on isolated shorelines by small boats, grown in bushland and in suburban houses, and cooked in residential labs across the country. As consumers we are willing to pay mark-ups of up to 400 per cent on boutique recreational drugs. Profit margins are simply too great for criminals to ignore, and new avenues of sale are opening up.
Joe Van Buskirk of NDARC monitors drug markets in Australia. Following an increase in people turning to the internet to research and purchase drugs, his team started monitoring the internet for the availability of these substances. They followed transactions on Silk Road, one of a number of emerging, anonymous marketplaces hosted on the deep web, from September 2012 to February 2013, which saw a rise in retailers from 282 to 374. Drugs bought from domestic retailers over the internet tend to be around the same price, or slightly cheaper than on the street, and in some ways are much safer. Buyers don’t have to deal face to face with shady types, a peer-review system keeps dealers honest, and unless a buyer’s mail is intercepted or their anonymous net router traced, they can evade the law. Australian Crime Commission Chief John Lawler was quoted in the Age in April 2012 as saying that the online drug trade ‘provides organised criminal networks with the largest potential client base ever available’.
In October 2013 Silk Road was taken down following an FBI raid on its chief operator, which had very little impact on the online world of drug peddling. Almost immediately, a plethora of similar deep websites emerged to corner the online drug market, and a month later a rebooted Silk Road, run now by a new anonymous party, was already in operation.
There are also a large number of surface and deep web retailers that sell emergent drugs, synthetic chemicals such as mephadrone and synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the chemical effect of traditional drugs and are popular in the mining industry because they are not picked up by urine tests. These are listed by trade names such as ‘Space Trips’, ‘Charge’ and ‘Mojo’, with no real indication of their ingredients. ‘These drugs are engineered to be similar to existing drugs a lot of the time, but they are chemically quite different, so there’s no saying what they could do,’ says Van Buskirk.
‘They use molecules no-one really knows anything about yet,’ a Queensland psychiatrist, who prefers not to be named, tells me. ‘Some of them are really powerful hallucinogens. If they hit the wrong receptors in the brain, you could trigger psychosis in someone who might be fine smoking thirty cones a day.’
In June 2013, Henry Kwan, a teenager from Sydney’s north shore, fell to his death from his family home’s third-floor balcony while under the influence of 25I-NB0Me, a powerful hallucinogen manufactured in China, sent here by mail order. Media coverage of the tragedy spurred the government to pass a law that allows updates to the list of substances that existing drug laws apply to. This was to discourage manufacturers changing their chemical substitutes faster than they can be outlawed. At the time, Geoff Munro, head of policy at the Australian Drug Foundation, told the Age the reform was futile. ‘There’s an infinite variety of substances that can be marketed illegally, so the cycle will continue no matter how quickly they [ban] new substances.’
A permanent ban on synthetic drugs is now on the national agenda, with New South Wales and Victoria urging the federal government to outlaw the products across the country. In June, NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts banned nineteen products as well as any substances that provide a similar high or are ‘equivalent to goods specified or represented as such an equivalent’. He turned down an offer by a group of synthetic drug merchants to invest $200 million in testing products, telling the press that two people had already died from the drug. ‘I’m not interested in testing them,’ he added.
It would be unfair to call this band-aid solution an act of panicked populist vote-buying, but it is worth noting that this crackdown only applies to over-the-counter sales, and would not have stopped the mail order drug that killed Henry Kwan. Contrast this to the recent Psychoactive Substance Bill, which was passed by the New Zealand parliament by 119 votes to 1. Under the new law, new synthetic drugs may be approved for sale, but only to those over eighteen, and only if the manufacturer can prove the drug is safe. Licences to manufacture emergent drugs cost around NZ$2 million (A$1.7 million) but up to fifteen applications have already been lodged.
Dr Monica Barratt, a Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute of Curtin University, has a special interest in drugs on the internet and harm reduction. In June 2013 she told ABC Radio that banning a substance was the wrong approach to take from a health perspective, as what replaced it was often worse. Dr Barratt argued that instead of a reflexive ban, trying to stamp out all drug use, it could be time to determine which psychoactive substances are the least harmful to users. ‘The cynic in me thinks that, well, maybe our drug policy isn’t about harm at all? Maybe it’s about the appearance of doing something,’ she said.
Alex Wodak counts off for me the success stories of drug policies around the world: Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal, the hard-line United States not so much. ‘They are very evangelical about what they do but it really doesn’t work. We’re at a political phase where many countries are starting to look seriously at alternatives to drug prohibition, especially when it comes to cannabis.’
A recent ballot initiative in Colorado and Washington State regarding the taxation and regulation of cannabis passed by 55 per cent of the ballot vote. That makes the idea of selling and taxing pot more popular than, say, Barack Obama, who is in favour of revisiting cannabis laws throughout his country. In a January 2013 interview with the New Yorker, he indicated that he believed marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, but still called it a ‘bad idea’. In a subsequent interview with CNN, he elaborated and warned against blanket legalisation as a panacea for America’s drug problem: ‘If we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then the levels of abuse that may take place are going to be higher.’ As it stands, officials in Colorado have anticipated the fledgling pot industry will generate about US$40 million in annual tax revenue. In Israel, a US$40 million a year industry provides medical cannabis to nursing homes to treat cancer patients and the trauma of Holocaust survivors.
Last year, Uruguay moved to become the first country in the world to create a legal, national market for cannabis, passing a bill that allows consumers to grow their own plants, or buy from the government, for medical or recreational use. ‘The people need to understand that with bullets and baton blows, putting people in jail, the only thing we are doing is gifting a market to the narco-traffickers,’ President Jose Mujica told Uruguayan media. In Australia, the black market has been a gift for a lot of bad people: Carl Williams, Tony Mokbel, Robert Trimbole and the producers of Channel 9 crime shows.
Redirecting some resources to health and social interventions could result in considerable savings, and perhaps even hinder the black market. The Portuguese model suggests that decriminalisation of illicit drugs does not inevitably hinder the capacity of the law enforcement sector. Using police resources that formerly went to busting drug users, Portuguese police were able to refocus their attention on the upper end of the market, introducing systematic investigative techniques and teaming up with collaborative, international efforts. This has allowed them to increase their capacity to intercept international trafficking.
In time, Alex Wodak would like to see Australia start to tax and regulate cannabis using hard-to-get and easy-to-lose licences for cultivation, wholesale and retail. This would free up police time and allow the government to profit from some of the $3.8 billion Australians spend on weed. It would also allow packages with warning labels, consumer product information, information for those seeking help with problem use and proof-of-age requirements for purchase. ‘It wouldn’t be too difficult to extend those regulations from alcohol to cannabis,’ he says, although ‘Obviously this is not going to happen tomorrow.’
In 1997, then prime minister John Howard intervened to cancel a high-profile trial of the use of prescribed heroin in the management of addicts, overriding a Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy vote based on many years of research. He didn’t want to ‘send the wrong message’. This was part of his government’s ‘tough on drugs’ policy, which instead of treatment programs funded letter drops and a $30 million advertising campaign to dissuade a new generation of drug users from embracing party drugs such as speed and ecstasy. A series of TV spots included vignettes showing the pitfalls of drugs. A young woman takes ecstasy, dances at a rave for five seconds and then dies. In another cut, a dentist informs his patient that he has cracked all his teeth through grinding them while high. Then the tagline, a grim voiceover: ‘Ecstasy. You don’t know what it’ll do to you.’
The cannabis TV spot in particular had a hard time being alarmist. Psychosis, alienation, underachievement—the pitfalls of marijuana addiction—aren’t terribly telegenic, so the producers settle for a series of rapid jump cuts of teenagers looking a bit bored. That’s not a situation that requires a $30 million government spend. It requires a PlayStation.
These days a government website and accompanying iPhone app supply factoids such as ‘The effects of ecstasy are numerous and complex, and severe reactions are unpredictable.’ The app warns against chronic sleep problems, cracked teeth through grinding and ‘overheating to the point of organs liquefying’. It fails to mention other side effects, such as feelings of overwhelming tranquillity, love and oneness with the world. Maybe they just didn’t fit on the brochure. You have to dig pretty deep in the copy to find grudging references to the marijuana ‘high’ or the heroin ‘rush’.
The preference for propagandist slogans over fact harks back to the classic American ‘This is your brain on drugs’ PSA commercial. ‘This is your brain,’ a man says, holding up an egg. He points to a frying pan. ‘This is drugs.’ He cracks the egg into the pan, then holds it up to show it frying. ‘This is your brain on drugs.’ He turns to the camera. ‘Any questions?’ Of course there are questions. The late comedian Bill Hicks ridiculed the advertisement. ‘I’ve never looked at an egg and thought it was a fucking brain. Maybe I wasn’t getting good shit?’
Most government preventive literature ignores the reasons people seek out illegal drugs. When you take drugs, your brain doesn’t fry like an egg. Instead, massive amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine are released, flooding the pleasure centres of the brain. It’s the same mechanism that occurs when pleasurable experiences occur in everyday life. The problem is, over time the drugs rewire your brain to produce less dopamine, your everyday dopamine levels start from a lower baseline and sink you into depressive dysphoric syndrome, in which you’ll always perk up if you take your drug. This is one of the mechanisms common across all addiction, Professor Lawrence explained. ‘You can have a state of coming down, such as the terrible Tuesdays, which is acutely unpleasant, but after that there’s a long-term depressive situation that can lead to re-use of drugs simply to offset the negative consequences of no longer getting drugs, thanks to the shift in homeostasis [physiological equilibrium of the brain].’
A psychiatrist, who prefers not to be named, who works in drugs and alcohol tells me that people are unaware of the dangers of cannabis on young minds. ‘I’d love to be able to tell you that pot is fine, and for 98 per cent of people, it can be, but there’s clear evidence that it can trigger psychosis and schizophrenia, which is the most horrible, tragic, debilitating outcome, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a patient, short of suicide.’
The thing is, we do know what drugs will do to you. Drug abuse will mortgage your health and happiness for a handful of fun, sweaty evenings. It will rewire your brain so that the rest of your life experience will be muted, every other pleasure less full. Perhaps that didn’t fit on the brochure either.
Every single person in the fields of health and emergency response to whom I spoke believed Australia’s drug policy needs overhauling. Most of those still working in their fields asked not to be identified to protect their careers. The ranking police offer politely declined to speak to me, explaining the chain of command and providing the appropriate media contact. As I left the station, he asked me what I was writing about. I explained I was investigating the effectiveness of current drug policy. ‘Policy?’ he said, laughing. ‘Talk to the politicians.’
Politicians don’t want to talk about drugs. It is dangerous to take any position other than being doggedly against drugs. An ideological stance against drugs inevitably impacts the debate, and the ideology doesn’t always match the reality. Even the Howard government’s ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric didn’t track with its actions. Despite ‘tough on drugs’, the Howard government was also the first federal government to provide funding to support state and territory needle syringe programs, saving many lives, although they never spoke about that in public.
Even while he was secretly being quite compassionate, Howard kept up the nuggety man of steel routine in his bluster against illicit drugs, and no Australian prime minister since has seen fit to change that. Caitlin Hughes works with governments and the police, and knows how hard it can be to craft policy to tackle a multifaceted problem such as the shifting patterns of drug markets and abuse, especially if it’s not a popular idea with the public. ‘At this point it’s hard to tell what a revised legislative framework would look like. Trying to limit criminal penalty, particularly for people who are young and just experimenting, would be beneficial, but I’m not sure that’s going to be palatable. It’s somewhat unrealistic to expect governments to dramatically make decisions that don’t have wide public support. There are examples of when politicians lead, but you have to be very brave.’
Alex Wodak doesn’t expect to see leadership in this era when clearly dysfunctional policy can be very popular. ‘It’s been a comprehensive failure, and not cost effective, but it used to go down very well with the electorate, no doubt about that.’
In the run-up to the 2009 general election, the incumbent Portuguese president gave a speech, boasting about his role in the 2001 decriminalisation reform, and pledging his continuing support. He went on to win the election. It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of Australian politicians trying to leverage their soft-on-drugs credentials in a stump speech. But perhaps conditions are starting to change. Public opinion is becoming sympathetic to treating drugs as a health rather than a criminal issue, and Wodak says that politicians are aware of the need for reform. ‘There are many people in every political party of Australia right now who would privately say the same thing. I know because I’ve spoken to many members of political parties who sometimes approach me and encourage me to keep going.’
In May 2013, a NSW Legislative Council Committee Inquiry into the use of cannabis for medical purposes found significant evidence in favour of the plant. The panel of eight, consisting of members of five parties and chaired by a Nationals MLC, recommended, among other measures, ‘timely evidence based expansion of access to approved cannabis pharmacotherapies’. It called for the NSW government to introduce an amendment to the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 so that patients with terminal illnesses, HIV or AIDS could possess up to fifteen grams of raw product without risking arrest. The suggestions put forward in the inquiry’s report were considered in November 2013 and rejected by the government, which offered only a vague expression of support for ‘research … within the existing regulatory framework’. The decision flies in the face of scientific evidence, the wishes of a growing proportion of the electorate and the unanimous decision of a multi-party panel of MLCs.
Given that the NSW government recently enacted laws of dubious efficacy to restrict access to alcohol following the ‘coward punch’ affair, I think it is unlikely to debate the matter with clarity. Still, Alex Wodak is optimistic. ‘Globally, the pace of change is accelerating and sooner or later Australia will get swept up in that,’ he says. If Australia doesn’t review its drug policy to help save the citizens who are falling through its cracks, or in the wake of a change of approach internationally, he believes we will cave in to economic pressures. ‘Budget stress will encourage the government to scrap expensive white elephants, and this is a very expensive white elephant.’
When they say ‘decriminalisation’ or ‘legalisation’, no two people mean the same thing. Everybody has a preferred approach, based on how they spin the data and research through their experience and ideology. The thing most agree on is that the current system of blanket prohibition isn’t working. Australia spends a fortune funding police to catch users, and another, smaller fortune trying to negate the harm caused by punitive law enforcement. The atrophying ‘tough on drugs’ method places the production, distribution and control of illicit drugs in the hands of criminals and exposes young people to a dangerous and corruptive world. The most you can say about prohibition is that it’s the best way we have to stop drug abuse, except for all those we haven’t tried.
‘Prohibition will end,’ Michael Balderstone tells me over coffee in Nimbin. ‘It has to. It’s madness to put our kids in prison for a little pot.’ A passing woman interrupts us. She is around fifty, small and sweet-looking. ‘Sorry, but I heard what you said,’ she tells us, adjusting her spectacles nervously. ‘I’m visiting from Canberra and I’m looking for some smoke. I was told that if I just walk down the street people would offer it to me,’ she says, downcast. ‘But maybe I look too old.’
‘They’re probably just worried you’re a cop. You’re not a cop, are you?’ Balderstone laughs, pointing down Rainbow Lane. ‘Walk down that alley and you’ll discover a whole new world. They’ll help you. You need all the help you can get, down in Canberra.’