Criminalise, legalise, de-criminalise: what should Australia do about drugs?

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Dope, pingers, weed, coke, junk, smack. These are street names for drugs that are all illegal to buy, sell or possess in Australia, but you probably know what I’m talking about.

Chances are you have tried one or two of them.

In 2013, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimated that approximately 8 million Australians over the age of 13 had tried illicit drugs at some point in their lifetime, and almost 3 million had used drugs in the past year. A higher proportion of Australian adults reported using drugs than total adults around the world – approximately 15 per cent of adults in Australia compared to 5 per cent of adults globally.

Millions of Australians are using drugs on the regular, and according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), accidental overdoses and deaths have increased in recent years. In 2016, the ABS reported 1,808 drug-induced deaths. 71 per cent of those were due to accidental overdose – not suicide or other intent.

It’s clear that current laws aren’t stopping people from using drugs or even dying from them, so what alternatives are there?

Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has proposed we legalise one particular drug – cannabis – for Australians over the age of 18. This might decrease drug-related crime by cutting off demand for  black-market dealers, and could provide welcome tax revenue (more than $700 million dollars per year, according to one estimate).

California legalised cannabis for recreational use in January and Canada is preparing to follow suit with national laws in 2018. But before we give the Green(s) light to legalise recreational cannabis in Australia, let’s consider all our options first.

Governments have three options to regulate drug use and try to minimise the harm drugs can cause. They can criminalise, legalise or de-criminalise.


Criminalising drugs is what Australia currently does – for drugs like heroin, ice, cocaine, speed and cannabis. This makes using or distributing the drug illegal and tries to prevent people doing so by threatening them with things like jail and criminal records.

It’s been a popular policy around the world since US President Ronald Reagan declared the “war on drugs” in 1982 and since former Prime Minister John Howard introduced Australia’s national “tough on drugs” policy in 1997.

But data shows the threat of criminal law really hasn’t stopped anyone using drugs. Anecdotally, users say they will keep using drugs even though they know the potential consequences.

“You can throw all the evidence you want at politicians, but it has very little effect,” says Matt Noffs, who sees an incessant flow of drug users in his work as CEO of Australia’s largest drug and alcohol treatment service provider for young people, the Noffs Foundation. “A lack of evidence isn’t the problem; the evidence is clear. Prohibition has failed.”


A second option is to legalise drugs. We’ve done that for things like tobacco, alcohol and paracetamol. The advantages are that the government can control how those drugs are regulated – so there is more control over the potency and who can buy them. You must be over 18 and show ID if you want to buy alcohol. The Greens are suggesting similar ID requirements should be enforced if Australia legalises cannabis.

Legalisation allows government-approved chemists to test the drug, standardise its dosage and price, while also reaping tax rewards. California legalised cannabis in January 2018 and raked in more than $2.5 million in taxes in its first month. The Australian National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has estimated that the net benefit to the Australian economy could be more than $700 million dollars per year.

But opponents like Health Minister Greg Hunt say that the proposal is “dangerous and medically irresponsible”.

“We know … that cannabis has very serious risks in relation to physical health and, in particular, to mental health,” said Hunt on Tuesday. “Marijuana is a gateway drug. The risk of graduating from marijuana to ice to heroin is real and documented.”

The claim that marijuana is a “gateway drug” has been discounted by a number of studies. However, it could be true that allowing for-profit businesses to market and sell marijuana might lead them to target heavy pot users who may have an addiction, like alcohol companies do. Research in the UK has found that problem drinkers account for 60 per cent of alcohol industry sales.

While alcohol – a legal drug – causes about 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations every day in Australia, there has not been a single reported incident of someone dying from marijuana. The worst that seems to happen is you get a bit too stoned and might eat all your housemates’ ice cream (sorry, Cam).


The final option is a sort of middle ground. De-criminalising drugs means drugs remain illegal and criminal punishments for trafficking stay the same, but instead of sending people to prison for possessing personal-use quantities, you give them a fine like a parking ticket. No criminal record, no stigma or future employment and travel issues that usually come with a criminal conviction.

Portugal is often cited as the role model for drug de-criminalisation policies because in 2001 it decriminalised the use of all drugs, even heroin and ice.

Since then, Portugal’s Health Ministry reported that HIV infection plummeted by 90 per cent and the country now has just 0.58 drug deaths per 100,00 people. This is 10 times less than Australia’s drug death rate.

But what about drug use? Wouldn’t decriminalising drugs make more people use them? Well, no. The Portugal Ministry of Health reported that heroin users had dropped by three-quarters, from 100,000 users in 2001 to just 25,000 in 2015.

“Problematic drug use has dropped like a stone in Portugal,” says Alex Wodak, a medical doctor and current President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and of Harm Reduction Australia. “Crime related to drug use has dropped, the percentage of the prison population presenting with severe drug problems has decreased, and the government is saving tremendous amounts of money.”

A report by Deloitte Access Economics found that Australian State governments could save more than $110,000 per prisoner per year by placing a drug-addicted offender in rehabilitation instead of jail.

With 750,000 Australians choosing to use cannabis every week, according to the National Cannabis Prevention Information Centre, it is becoming clear that our “just say no” policy hasn’t worked. Australians will continue to say yes to drugs – perhaps it’s time we investigated the most cost-effective alternatives.