Legalise drugs, says doctor

Published in Columns on 22 October, 2009
Canberra City News

By Michael Moore

“LEGALISE all drugs: the war on drugs just has not worked,” is the message that former police chief from San Diego and Seattle is conveying on his Australian tour.
Dr Norm Stamper, author of the book “Breaking Ranks” is in Australia to encourage the Government to resist the path taken by the US and find a better way of dealing with illicit drugs. He will address a public meeting at the ACT Assembly 5.30pm on Monday, October 26.
Dr Stamper argues that it is time to reflect on President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” and ask what has it achieved. He is a key adviser to LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), a group of about 16,000 US criminal justice professionals who are fed up with the damage caused by this failed strategy.  He says: “I want to learn from what is happening in Australia and also explain and outline the mistakes the US has made. “I would hate to see Australia going down the same track as the US where the war has clearly been lost”.
Australia has not been quite as simple-minded as the US on this issue – our governments have, at least, invested substantially in treatment and in harm minimisation programs. These have been extraordinarily successful in reducing the damage associated with the use of illicit drugs compared to countries that have slavishly followed the US model.
The difficulty for Norm Stamper is that his message challenges our intuition.  We all know and understand that the illicit drugs are dangerous for health.  We understand the damage that alcohol and tobacco, the currently legal and widely available drugs, do to our community. Our gut reaction is that if we did not prohibit cannabis, heroin and ice the situation would get much worse.
The reason that his message is counter-intuitive is it seems that making such drugs legal will surely create even more problems.
Norm Stamper’s point is that current policies have increased such burdens and he points to the US to give examples of police corruption, colossal investment in the prison system, drug-related violence and a drain on community resources to argue that there has to be a better way.
He points to the US expenditure of $69–70 billion each year on a war that has caused tens of millions of Americans to be incarcerated for non-violent drug offences.
Research from the US National Council on Crime and Delinquency in 2006 demonstrated that the US incarcerates at a rate four to seven times higher than other western nations such as the UK, France, Italy, Australia and Germany ­– but Norm Stamper warns that we are on the same slippery slope.  The majority of people in western nations who are in jail are there for drug-related crime.
The nub of Dr Stamper’s argument is that the process of prohibition actually does more damage than the drugs themselves. That is why he advocates for government control, including controlled outlets and taxation. His approach will certainly mean less drain on community coffers in the long term and has the potential to undermine the illicit drug trade. And that is why he is in Canberra to meet with politicians and policy makers in the hope that a new approach can be developed limit the harm and to minimise corruption, misery and a massive tax burden.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He is a member of the group that is sponsoring Dr Stamper’s tour.