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Three-quarter measures on drugs not good enough

This version 8 July 2003, originally published in The Canberra Times, 26 July 2000, p.11.

In one respect Dr Peter Carnley, the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, has come three quarters of the way towards the least bad drugs policy. But three quarters is likely to cause yet more harm, while failing to provide much good.

Dr Carnley, shocked at the 42 heroin overdose deaths in Western Australia this year [2000], proposes the establishment of not only safe injecting rooms, but the supply of relatively safe heroin. In this he implicitly recognises one of the biggest problems that faces Australia due to drugs, or more pertinently, due to our governments' responses to drugs.

The problem Dr Carnley hopes to address is that of avoidable death. The number of overdoses annually in Australia is rapidly approaching 1,000. But those people are not killed by heroin. They are killed by heroin of uncertain quality. The quality is uncertain because our governments have outlawed the substance.

Why don't people keel over, stone cold dead, after consuming several glasses of wine at dinner parties? Because they know (whether by printed figures on the label or from past experience) the amount of ethanol the wine contains. They are not unknowingly presented with vodka proof-levels in wine. That's because alcohol is legal. It is worth the while of wine makers to develop reputations of quality. If some rogue enters the market with dangerous wine, he or she will soon be sued out of existence.

You can't sue your heroin dealer for a shoddy product, whether it be cut with dangerous substances or unexpectedly pure. If you buy something illegal then there is, at law, no enforcable contract. More importantly, anyone operating an illegal business has very little incentive to establish a good reputation. A business only requires a reputation if it has some sense that it will still be operating a year or five into the future. With the possibility of closure by the forces of law forever present, no operator at any level of the heroin supply chain feels inclined to make such an investment.

Dr Carnley's proposal would go some way towards addressing this. Existing drug addicts in areas served by the injecting rooms/heroin supply depots would no longer face injectable Russian Roulette with each shot. But what about those who live elsewhere, or casual heroin users who otherwise conduct normal lives? Their supplies will still come from the street.

Meanwhile, with reduced demand prices would fall even faster. Illegal suppliers would increase their efforts to expand into new markets: younger children who would without a doubt be ineligible for free government-supplied heroin. Anyway, do we actually consider it the State's role to supply dangerous substances to people to use for dangerous purposes?

What would do the most harm anyway to a young person's life? Good quality, and cheap, heroin of known strength? Or a term in prison?

Aside from those who die from drug overdoses, thanks to drug prohibition, even more people's lives are greatly harmed by the crime associated with illegal drugs. These are both the criminals and their victims, and sometimes both (those killed as a result of the robust business practices that illegal trade entails). The suffering of crime victims is obvious. The criminals suffer through arrest and imprisonment. Some have done no more than engage in a trade deemed illegal. Most have committed real crimes.

But the use of heroin does not turn one automatically into a criminal. It is the illegality of heroin that makes it expensive. Business expenses associated with the trade include the payment of bribes, the use of inefficient distribution channels, and the loss of staff and customers to jail. Because it is so expensive many addicts are driven to crime. Somewhat more than half of those in prison are there for drug offences or general crime committed in the pursuit of money for drugs.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, thanks to its "War on Drugs". Somewhat reminiscent of the Vietnam War, its supporters count bodies while overlooking the insurgency, represented by the falling prices of illegal drugs and the destruction of the lives of young people.

Dr Carnley's suggestion goes part of the way. I congratulate him for at least thinking laterally. But it is not the answer. Half-hearted decriminalisation is not the answer either. This leaves the drug quality problem untouched.

The least bad solution is to legalise the possession, use, supply, importing and manufacturing of presently illegal drugs. More people may well use heroin and other illegal drugs as a result, but with the trade operating in the open economy, subject to legal protections, at least they won't be inadvertently dying, nor robbing our homes to feed the habit. And they will be free to seek help without fear of imprisonment.

© 2000 - Stephen Dawson