Criminal Law

By Tom Taylor


Is Australia’s War on Drugs a failure?


A report has shown that Australian use of stimulants – such as methylamphetamine or “ice” – is second only to the European country Slovakia. The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Report, from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, showed that Australians are heavy users of stimulants when compared to European countries.

The ACT had a higher consumption level of cocaine than other states and territories, except for Sydney.

Australian government and police officials will be wiping the sweat from their brows as the report didn’t make much headway in the national news. Yet, it shouldn’t be discarded as it shows that the much-maligned War on Drugs is failing in its objective to stamp out the use of illegal drugs through the current criminal law framework.

High stimulant use in Australia

The first report from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring program used internationally recognised wastewater analysis to measure and interpret drug use in Australia. Funded by the Australian government, the program will cost around $3.6 million over three years – funded by the Confiscated Assets Fund.

Rather than a complete view, the report offers a snapshot – covering only 58 per cent of Australia’s population (approximately 14 million people). However, it does offer real-time data on drug use in Australia, providing valuable information to key stakeholders such as health officials and users.

Methylamphetamine was the most-used drug in the country. Western Australia showed the highest levels of use, while Canberra (along with Hobart) showed the lowest levels.

Oxycodone and fentanyl consumption was also high. Regional areas in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia showed higher than normal levels of fentanyl use. Compared to the consumption rate of European countries, the report found that Australia ranked second-highest. When it comes to methylamphetamine use, Australia also ranked second.

Drug use is a health issue

The data from the research project throws new light on Australian drug habits, and calls into question the approaches taken by government and police officials. Take the most recent drug bust by Victoria Police and the Australian Federal Police, which netted close to a tonne of methamphetamine hidden in an east Melbourne warehouse. With a street value of $898 million, the police are arguing that this is a historical seizure and applauding their efforts.

However, simply seizing drugs does not get to the root of the ice issue in Australia, which is one of health, not crime. The War on Drugs has been ongoing for several decades now, with more and more commentators pointing to its failures than ever before.

Back in 2016, US President Barack Obama took an unprecedented step when he acknowledged drug addiction is a health issue, rather than a criminal one.

“For too long we’ve viewed drug addiction through the lens of criminal justice,” Obama said at a conference in the US. “The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment – to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”

The argument he was basing this on is addiction is a disease, or at the very least a health issue. Many of the globe’s major organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, argue that criminalisation and incarceration is failing to deal with the negative consequences of drug use.

In many ways it’s making it worse. Incarceration, for example, cost Australia more than $3 billion in 2010-11.

Current criminal law framework that criminalises drug use is failing Australians.

Many of these offenders are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, with children feeling the effects of mass incarceration just as much as adults. In 2015-16, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 25 times more likely to find themselves in detention and 17 times more likely to be managed by some kind of youth justice order when compared to non-indigenous children.

Deloitte argues that moving non-violent drug offenders from prison into residential treatment is substantially cheaper. The finance and audit company argues that the county could save $111,458 per offender.

By moving non-violent drug offenders from jail cells to treatment tables, not only can it save Australia money, but it can also help them beat their addiction and get back to being productive citizens.