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Decriminalisation Is The Only Way To Arrest Australia's Drug Problem

Until that day arrives Al Capone will be smiling in his grave.
Al Capone signing Uncle Sam's Bail Bond, June 7, 1931, United States. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
UIG via Getty Images
Al Capone signing Uncle Sam's Bail Bond, June 7, 1931, United States. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

The release of the latest Illicit Drug Data Report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission was, as expected, done so without any doubt of its triumph.

The increase in illicit drug seizures was defined as the measure of success according to the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan, who said:

Nationally, over the past decade the number of illicit drug seizures has increased by 84.7 per cent, the weight of illicit drugs seized has increased by more than 75 per cent, and the number of arrests has increased by 87.6 per cent. Our law enforcement agencies are among the best in the world and their continued success sends the strongest possible message to the criminals who deal drugs: we will find you.

This lack of reference to the outcomes of these seizures is because, if you delve into the back of the report for the actual numbers, and cross reference that data with other indicator reports available, the result is very disappointing.

Given the success claimed, it should be reasonable to assume that these seizures would be reflected in the price, purity and availability of drugs -- the best indicators of actual impact. Unfortunately, the reality is that these indicators remain largely unaffected. The trend is at best stable but in some cases, the drugs are cheaper, purer and easier to obtain.

The breadth and profitability of the illicit drug market remains the unspoken reality. The regular claims of seizures of millions or billions of dollars of drugs only serves to fuel the public's misunderstanding of the market. The street value of these seizures may well be millions or billions but it is the actual loss to the supplier (in this case, organised crime) that also needs to be openly stated.

If each shipment costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the supplier, but is worth tens of millions of dollars or more on the street, then how many shipments can be written off as a simple transactional cost of doing business before profits take a hit?

Again, unfortunately, it is clear that a lot of shipments can be seized before any pain is inflicted on organised crime given the payoff when one gets through.

For every sensational story you see on the news about a record seizure of illicit drugs you can assume that it will have minimal impact on the market. The so called 'kingpins' arrested will also be replaced quickly by another group of people ready to take the risk for the incredible amounts of money on offer.

The answer is not to give away the game of trying to control an uncontrollable market, but rather to learn from history and approach the problem with a clear headed focus on evidence. Alcohol prohibition in the USA all those years ago was proven to be a monumental policy blunder that gave a tremendous leg-up for organised crime by providing them with a huge cash flow from illicit alcohol.

The answer lies in decriminalisation of personal use of drugs, regulation of the market and reducing the demand for drugs, not a focus on stopping what is a tidal wave of supply.

To add insult to injury, we also have the trumpeting of the arrest of more people for illicit drugs than ever before. This seems to entirely miss the point of the impact these arrests have on people's lives, their families and the community.

As the Minister proudly announced: "Arrests increased by 15.4 percent to a record 154,538 arrests in 2015-16 compared to the previous year" -- he failed to highlight again what was in the detail.

This is because it reveals that over 87 percent of these arrests were for consumers -- the people using drugs, not supplying them. And over half of these people were arrested for using cannabis, which has hit a staggering 200 people a day being arrested across Australia.

It appears that for every 'kingpin' arrested the police have also been busily arresting thousands of people for using cannabis.

This is not a criticism of the work of law enforcement. They are doing their job as best as they can -- which is to enforce the laws of the day. It is a criticism of our lawmakers who lack the courage to be honest with the public about what all this data actually reveals.

Imagine the difference if all the money we now spend on arresting people, lawyers, parole and courts was instead provided to drug treatment and support services.

Until that day arrives Al Capone will be smiling in his grave.


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