In May 2009, ADLRF member Bill Bush wrote a piece about the need for an examination of drug policy. Here is the text from the article, including parts that were edited at publication for space.

This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on May 15, 2009 (p. 13):

Drug policy needs a deeper focus to halt snowballing risks

Urgent change is crucial to stop increasing budget wastage and greater harm in society, Bill Bush writes.

At least one advantage of hard times should be to cause governments to carefully examine their budgetary priorities. In good times there is never enough to go around; in bad times the capacity is reduced while need increases. In spite of the ACT Government’s preparedness to run a deficit of 5 per cent of expenditure, the ACT Council of Social Service lamented that the budget “fails to address the increasing pressure on community organisations as a result of the financial crisis” because “the community sector needs to be resourced to meet the already increasing demand for emergency relief, homelessness services and family counselling”.

There are reasonable grounds to take seriously the prospect that substantial budgetary savings are possible in these domains that will experience increased demand. The fly in the ointment is that this would involve looking at drug policy, which no political party, Liberals, Greens or Labor, wants to know about.

The grounds are simple. From research on risk and protective factors and the social determinants of health we know that by and large it is the same disadvantaged population that manifests most severely multiple problems, including substance dependence. The services required to address these problems are big budgetary items. There is strong evidence that recasting drug policy offers a cost-effective way of short-circuiting the cycle of disadvantage and regulatory theory tells us that existing drug policy uses the most inefficient means of regulation.

It is known that an aggregation of family, environmental or personal risk factors is predictive of further problems. The neglected child is likely to: have problems at school, mix with a dysfunctional peer group, get caught up in delinquency, start using drugs early, develop mental health problems and so on.

We are seeing the snowball of risk factors (and diminished protective ones) augmented down generations. The drug-dependent parent who has had a stint in prison is likely to bequeath her own risk factors in amplified form to her children.

The challenge is to stop the snowball growing. Services to address problems of this population are scattered in numerous government agencies. Most of the expenditure of the Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services, with 5 per cent of the ACT budget, is devoted to services for this group. It starts by providing an early intervention and prevention program for children from birth to age five and their families and extends to youth services and the very expensive child protection service. Special education programs, counselling and interventions to deal with children with behavioural problems are funded by the Department of Education and Training. The same disadvantaged population is a heavy drawer upon these services. The Department of Health attempts to meet their needs in mental health, maternal and child health, drug and alcohol and corrections health services. The same population has disproportionately high needs for acute services such as those arising from hepatitis C [contracted from injecting drug use that is widespread among prisoners]. The lion’s share of Housing ACT’s allocation goes to the same population. The police and corrections services funded by the Department of Justice and Community Safety are the sharp end of these government services.

The standard response is to pour more and more resources into individual services but we are always chasing our tail: in the best times, unmet need outstrips what government is prepared to spend. Skyrocketing child protection costs of recent years are a prime example. Early intervention to address underlying causes is another common call. More often than not it means looking for something that is irrelevant [even if it can be found]. Reflection on the growing snowball of problems of the disadvantaged population shows why. The original cause may be buried in the middle a generation ago.

Intervening early in the life (or before birth) of a child [is early intervention for the child but not for] the parent whose problems have to be serviced if the child is to have a chance.

We need to look instead for a circuit breaker: an affordable intervention that will reduce [significant] risk factors and make existing interventions on other risk factors more effective.

There is strong evidence that drug policy is such an intervention. The threat of a harmful criminal sanction is at the heart of existing drug policy. In the words of a United States authority, criminal law is designed to “make the life of the habitual user dangerous, arduous, frightening and expensive.” It is one thing to impose such stress to deter theft or violence. It is quite another to impose it to force someone with a roaring addiction to stop using.

The ubiquity of substance dependence in the target [problem-rich] population means that the intervention of criminal law is inefficient and that the intervention compounds the risk factors. To quote another US writer “stress gets in the way of our capacity to make good choices, and even to perceive our full options for choices”. Expensive measures of harm minimisation are then needed to ameliorate stresses imposed by the measure taken to tackle the problem.

A conservative guess of the contribution in this sense of illicit drug policy to the ACT budget is $385m or 10.6 per cent of expenditure. Not all of this could be saved. A further conservative guess of what could is 4.8 per cent – the size of the deficit. Moreover, studies suggest a potential for substantial quick savings in law enforcement and corrections budgets.

This is because overseas studies of maintenance interventions show sustained reductions in the region of 80 per cent achieved in a matter of months among severely dependent illicit drug users – those who make up the bulk of our prison population.

Regulation theory suggests another reason why we should consider drug policy. The theory looks at the optimum means to abate or control risk to society and promote the public good. Good regulation involves a spread of measures throughout a regulatory pyramid. Most regulation should be invested in the broad lower levels of the pyramid involving voluntary or persuasive measures rather than the narrow tip of command and control regulation. Only when persuasion fails should more resource intensive and intrusive regulation be considered. With drug policy the pyramid is reversed.

Existing drug policy is not effective in its principal goal of reducing the availability of illicit drugs. In 1951 Australians consumed 5.25 kg of heroin per million – all of it legal. By the end of the century Australians were consuming about 35 kg per million – all of it illegal. In the past few years there has been a boom in the availability of stimulants.

In short, there are more than enough budgetary reasons for political parties to agree at least to look at the issue. The matter is one of mainstream concern. The Australian Crime Commission believes that up to $12 billion in illicit drug money is flowing out of Australia annually and the turnover of the world’s illicit drug industry is on a par with world trade in oil or gas.