I'm midway through my month-long Australian drug policy reform tour, and the reception couldn't be more encouraging. The hundreds of people I've met along the way -- police officers, city officials, parliament members, university students and professors, everyday Australians -- have been warm and gracious, whether in agreement or in expressing openness to debate.
Except for a curt encounter in Perth.
I was not prepared for the smug, dismissive behavior of a Member of Parliament. Then again, how does one cram for an ambush? Colluding with the woman were a like-minded colleague and two uniformed police officers (presumably invited to mount a unified front, the cops were models of courtesy and decorum).
At the last minute, the woman had changed the meeting from the House of Parliament to her office in a quiet Perth suburb, neatly avoiding inclusion of our words in Hansard, the name given to transcripts of parliamentary proceedings; available to all, Hansard is a treasured Australian tradition dating to 1896.
As she met me at the door the MP sternly castigated my "agenda" -- we'd just met. Each time I attempted to lay out this "agenda," she and/or her colleague interrupted, keen to educate me on how terribly wrong and dangerous I am to Western Australians. (I don't know about you, but if I had an unsuspecting enemy in my lair I'd be inclined to keep my mouth shut and start amassing intelligence.)
As billed, Western Australia leans right, its ruling politicians generally conservative, generally enamored of nanny-state initiatives, generally resistant to talk of meaningful drug law reform.
Indeed, the premier is set to roll back provisions of modest cannabis decriminalization enacted by the state in 2003.
Claiming that cannabis is a hard drug, that it causes schizophrenia, that it is arguably a "gateway" to harder drugs, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett is introducing legislation that would reduce from 30 to 10 the number of grams needed for a criminal prosecution; prohibit the growing of even a single pot plant; and ban smoking implements (with a $5,000 fine for sale of such products to adults, $10,000 to minors), thus sending pot smokers back to the dark ages of carcinogenic PVC containers and garden hoses.
Oh, and he's planning to give police the "right to go up to anyone they wish to and introduce a stop and search power." (Australia's politicians have failed to produce a bill of rights, apparently in the face of long-standing, overwhelming citizen support.)
What is it that keeps certain politicians from comprehending the immutability of the law of supply and demand, and the calamitous effects of prohibition? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that cannabis rots the membrane in your nose, scrambles your brain and produces a psychosis of Texas Chainsaw Massacre proportions. Wouldn't that be justification for the government to regulate and control the substance, rather than leave its commerce in the hands of drug kingpins and street traffickers?
Of course, the great majority of the 22 million Americans who regularly smoke marijuana and the 100 million who've tried it at least once, including our last three presidents, seem remarkably resistant to grave health risks, including murderous or suicidal tendencies.
This is not to make light of those who suffer problems with the drug. Indeed, our labeling of all users as "criminals" imposes a substantial barrier between those who need help and the compassionate, effective treatment they deserve.
As the rest of the world and, indeed, the rest of Australia moves toward more sane and sensible drug policy (see Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, California, et al), Western Australia is poised, under Barnett's Liberal-National Party coalition, to take a step in precisely the wrong direction.
And this just in: A Liberal (read "conservative" in the States) member of Western Australia's State Parliament is calling for drug testing of the state's politicians. Why? Well, in a West Australian survey last week of WA MPs more than a third of the respondents admitted to having used cannabis in the past (as did four members of Mr. Barnett's cabinet). The tally: 14 confessions, 24 denials, 56 assertions of "None of your business."