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Assessing Success of Drug Policy

In: Social Issues

Submitted By cgleds01
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Research and analyse debates on the current 'war against drugs' and its success or otherwise, globally and/or locally. Explain the debate and present an argument, supported by evidence, for either the continuation of a 'war against drugs' or for an alternative.
The use of prohibited drugs has been predominant in Western society since the 19th century, with cannabis introduced to the United States in 1839, while opium was introduced to Europe and the United States through trade with China. These drugs were initially used for pharmaceutical benefits, but over time various legislatures introduced laws to administer, regulate and prohibit the use of various drugs. The declaration of ‘war on drugs’ took place in the United States of America (USA) in 1971. The historical response to the ‘war on drugs’ has been prohibition: the complete banning of drug use. This approach, which involves strict enforcement of illegal drug laws, has proven costly and ineffective (RCAP & RANZCP, 2004). This essay will focus on Australia’s current drug debate regarding the legalisation of certain prohibited illicit drugs. Whilst examining the Australian position, this essay will use international examples to illustrate how the current strategy fails and survey workable solutions. Firstly, this work examines the historical position of the ‘war on drugs’. It will outline the history of drug use in Australia and the nation’s current drug policy. This essay will then discuss the criminal, social, health and policy issues surrounding the debate regarding the legalization versus prohibition. Having addressed these points this essay concludes the prohibition of certain illicit drugs has failed comprehensively and legalising, controlling and regulating drugs should be the new Australian drug policy.


The ‘war on drugs’ is fundamentally a viewpoint voicing the prohibition of psychoactive drugs emphasising criminalisation of use and possession (Douglas & McDonald). Prohibition refers to the illegality of drug related activities including, use, possession, cultivation, manufacture and supply (Douglas & McDonald). Over the past 130 years the USA have experienced six identified drug wars, the most recent sharing two common themes; scapegoating and intense media coverage (Jensen, 2008). The Nixon federal level drug war targeted young males who were opposed to the Vietnam War and African Americans, the media was used to exaggerate the scope and severity of the problem (Jensen, 2008). Whilst no direct connection existed between these minority groups and the increasing popularity of new drugs, the political parties used the countries fear and bias to gain political favour.

The term ‘war on drugs’ is a political term coined by American President Richard Nixon in 1971. Momentum for the movement began in the 1960s following the rising popularity of marijuana and Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and the increasing concern of parental and community groups (Douglas & McDonald). Politicians exacerbated the concerns of American citizens then presented drug prohibition and a tough stance on drug offences as a reasonable solution. This political approach uses the culture of fear to achieve its aims. The tactical move resulted in the Nixon party achieving a land-slide victory in the following presidential election. Many countries, including Australia, have based their drug policies upon the prohibition strategy.

The ‘war on drugs’ continues, however the concept did not begin with the Nixon Government. Five similar campaigns have been recorded over America’s history. In the past forty years America has spent $2.5 trillion fighting the war (Suddath, 2009). Despite media campaigns, increased incarceration rates and a crackdown on smuggling, the number of illicit drug users in America has risen over the years and now sits at 19.9 million Americans (Suddath, 2009). Prohibition is a position that is not working and needs to be reassessed.

In Australia, the presence of drugs such as opium emerged pre federation and despite a nationwide approach, colonies generally used harm minimisation such as warning label on bottles to control drug use (Ryder, Waler & Salmon, 2006). In the aftermath of World War I, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the forming of the League of Nations, Australia became a signatory to several drug treaties which resulted in legislation relating to drug prohibition being similar in every state and territory, and mirrored the laws in similar western countries (Berridge, 1997). At the time the amount of drug use in Australian society was extremely low.

These laws were a distinct move away from the earlier policies of harm minimisation and towards punitive actions. This coincided with the emergence of Australia’s first organised crime entities such as ‘The Razor Gang’ operating in Sydney. The prohibition of drugs such as cocaine under The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 1927 removed the power of control from the government and allowed organised crime syndicates to profit from the importation and sale of such drugs. Drug use at this time escalated. Prohibition placed the emphasis on law enforcement and criminalisation rather than a shared responsibility which would allow a health and social focus (Douglas & McDonald). As a result tremendous strain was placed on law enforcement resources, a problem which still exists today.

In the past twenty years, the emergence of synthetic drugs and stricter prohibition laws have seen an increase in drug taking behaviours within the Australia population. Currently, psychoactive drugs in New South Wales, listed under schedule one of The Drugs Misuse & Trafficking Act 1985 cannot be legally cultivated, produced, transported, sold, bought, possessed or consumed. Similar legislation exists nationwide. Prohibition is at the forefront of the Australian drug stance. Currently the National Drug Strategy provides the principal policy approach to drug use and aims to ‘minimise the harmful effects of drugs on Australian society’ (Blewett as cited in Hamilton and Rumbald, 2010, p.137). Since 1985, the National Drug Strategy has held a consistent stance within the prohibition framework using three approaches; supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. Combined, the three elements form the harm minimisation approach. Harm minimisation concedes that some people will engage in drug taking behaviours and this will cause social harms (Robinson, 1998, p.17) however the strategy seeks to reduce the harmful impact upon the individual and society. The approach necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the micro and macro social contexts in which drug use occurs to introduce strategies which will be most effective in reducing harm. (Keenan, 2010).

Despite harm minimisation having a significant impact on treatment and policy, Fitzgerald and Sewards (as cited in Hamilton, King, Ritter & Otmar, 2010) suggest a new direction with the future characterised by regulation and mediation of drugs and their effects. Australia would benefit from a national drug policy relating to the decriminalisation and legalisation of current illicit drugs.

Policy makers should first acknowledge what has worked effectively in the current strategy and incorporate this into a revitalised strategy emphasising government control. Harm reduction is an approach requiring a multi-faceted response from health and social service agencies. Two major accomplishments of the harm reduction approach include the needle exchange program and the supervised medical injection facility. Needle exchange facilities provide a range of services that include provision of sterile injecting equipment, education on reducing drug use, health information, and referral to drug treatment, medical care and legal and social services (Dolan, MacDonald, Siins & Topp, 2005). Supervised injecting centres provide a safe, clean facility which users can attend free of charge. The programs have proven effective in steadying the propagation of HIV and hepatitis epidemics. These programs would continue to be effective and could be expanded if prohibition was replaced with legalisation and control policies.

Health and community services are the most effected by drug use, their resources are used to support and treat addicts. However, the current drug policy of prohibition provides funding to law enforcement to combat growing drug use/importation/supply. This means that there are less funds for other government agencies and ministries as funds come from a finite source. In 1992, $450.6 million was spent on law enforcement strategies compared with $42.7 million on health care, including medical services, nursing homes and hospital bed day (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001). These figures relate specifically to drug treatment processes. Whilst Police services receive the stated funds to address the current drug problem, other unit and squads do not receive proportional funding. Spooner, MacPherson and Hall (2004) suggest that some prevention and law enforcement activities have very little evidenced-based research to guide their funding decisions (Spooner et al 2004). Meaning, the police do not have control over where the money is spent and money is not used in the most effective way rather a way that is most politically popular. This is neither a sustainable nor effective approach.

Using health and education systems to manage drug use will resemble the controls currently used in nicotine regulation and prove more effective than prohibition. With increased awareness of the negative health effects of smoking, and increased government deterrence measures, the amount of tobacco smoked per capita has declined since the mid–1970s (Scollo & Winstanley as cited in Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011). Current statistics show that not only is the rate of smoking per person decreasing, the rate of people that have never smoked is increasing. ‘Young people were less likely to smoke in 2007–08 than in 1989–90, with a drop from 36% to 24% in rates of current smoking for men aged 18–24 years, and a drop from 36% to 22% for women of the same age’ (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).
Governments have campaigned extensively to achieve positive results relating to nicotine reduction and this has come at huge expensive. Due to regulation, the Australian government is able to use funds from the taxes on nicotine to fund health and awareness programs. On top of this, savings associated with avoided deaths and related declines in illness and disability due to reduced tobacco use in Australia over the last 30 years are estimated to be approximately $8.6 billion (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Legalization of current illicit drugs would allow to the government to tax such drugs and use funds to operate health programs and educational campaigns.
Laws were not created with their level of destruction in mind. An examination of drug laws in Australia shows that ‘very often which drugs are considered to be 'bad' and which to be 'good' is decided politically rather than through some sort of neutral, technical exercise’ (White & Habibis, 2005). From statistics it can be concluded that tobacco is by far a more destructive drug than its most commonly compared illegal counterpart, cannabis. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Australia. The Illicit Drug Reporting System stated that seventy nine precent of the national samples had used cannabis within the past twelve months with over half using cannabis on a daily basis (Stafford & Burns, 2012). Approximately twenty deaths in Australia per year are attributed to cannabis derivatives compared to seven thousand eight hundred and twenty from tobacco in the same year (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007). Tobacco kills half the people who become regular smokers and has no medicinal properties. Rather than demonize the effects of cannabis several countries world-wide recognise the health benefits and permit the medicinal use of cannabis. Seventeen American States, Austria, Canada, Germany, Israel, Netherlands, Spain, England and Wales use medical cannabis for the treatment and pain relief of many and varied serious diseases.

87 percent of persons arrested are for cannabis offences (White & Habibis, 2005).

Supply reduction involves law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system operating with the purpose to reduce the possession, supply, manufacture, cultivation, transport and use of illicit drugs as well as financial transactions as a result of drug dealings (New South Wales Police Force, 2006). Statistics indicate that consumers of illicit drugs are far more likely than suppliers to be arrested for drug offences of any illicit substance (White & Habibis, 2005). Drug enforcement of this nature is easy to affect and is cost effective. However it does not effect or target the upper echelon of the drug supply chain. As law enforcement is regarded as the primary agency within the harm minimisation framework, their effectiveness directly relates to the success of the strategy. Police have not been able to adequately reduce the supply of illicit drugs.

The results of studies on the connection between first druguse (usually a recreational drug) and crime tend to show that drug use preceded crime.
Bennett, T & Holloway, K 2005, ‘The causal connection: more than coincidence?’ in Understanding drugs, alcohol and crime, Open
University Press, Maidenhead, Berkshire, pp. 111-126.

Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) project run by the
Australian Institute of Criininology (AIC) monitors illicit drug use among police detainees in several sites across Australia (AIC 2002a: 89).
Between 1999 and 2001, the DUMA project found that around 70 per cent of the young people in these sites routinely tested positive to drugs of some kind, such as carmabis, opiate, amphetamines, or cocaine
Not only was drug addiction associated with increased property offendiilg, but 51 per cent of those who reported drug use attributed all or most of their offending to illegal drugs and alcohol. (WHITE)
Since the 1920s, Australian history has documented the control that organised crime gangs have held over the illicit drug trade. Control that if legalised, would fall to the government.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2001). Illicit Drug Use: Sources of Australian Data

2001. (No. 4808.0). Canberra: Author.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). Drug Related Deaths by Type of Drug - Total

Drug Related Deaths. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012). Fact at Your Fingertips: Health, 2011. (No.

4841.0). Canberra: Author.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Drugs in Australia 2010: tobacco,

alcohol and other drugs. Retrieved from

Berridge, V. (1997). Two Tales of Addiction; Opium and Nicotine. Human

Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental. 12(2), 45-52.

Hamilton, M., Ritter, M., King, T & Otmar, R. Contemporary Issues and Challenges

For the Future. In Hamilton, M., King, T. & Ritter, A. (eds). Drug Use in Australia: Preventing Harm. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, M. & Rumbold, G. Addressing Drug Problems: The Case for Harm

Minimisation. In Hamilton, M., King, T. & Ritter, A. (eds). Drug Use in Australia: Preventing Harm. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Keenan, M. (2010). The Social Context of Drug Use. In Hamilton, M., King, T. &

Ritter, A. (eds). Drug Use in Australia: Preventing Harm. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Dolan, K., MacDonald, M., Silins, E. & Topp, L. (2005). Needle and syringe programs: A review of the evidence. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

New South Wales Police Force. (2006). Drugs. Retrieved from

Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) & The Royal Australia and

New Zealand College of Psychiatrits (RANZCP). (2004). Illicit Drugs Policy: Using evidence to get better outcomes. Retrieved from

Ritter, A. (eds). Drug Use in Australia: Preventing Harm. Victoria: Oxford

University Press.

Robinson, T. (1998). Harm Minimisation. Policing Issues and Practice Journal, 6(3),


Ryder, D., Walker, N. & Salmon, A. (2006). Drug Use and Drug-related Harm: A Delicate Balance. IP Communication; Melbourne.

Spooner, C, McPherson, M & Hall, W 2004, The role of police in preventing and minimising illicit drug use and its harms, Commonwealth of Australia 2004, viewed 27 October 2006,

Stafford, J. & Burns, L. (2012). Findings from Illicit Drug Reporting System.

Retrieved from

Suddath, C. (2009, March 25). Brief History; War on Drugs. Time World. Retrieved


White, R. & Habibis, D. (2005). Crime and Society. Oxford University Press; Victoria.


Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).

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