Experts Agree that the War on Ice is Lost, But Will Governments Shift Focus?

A Western Australian Judge has declared the State has lost its war on drugs, as suppliers are undeterred by heavy penalties and increased enforcement measures.

During a District Court sentencing hearing, Judge Philip McCann called the ‘ice epidemic’ “a national and international disgrace,” blaming the continuing flow of the drug on Chinese drug cartels.

He conceded that drug experts are correct to say it is impossible to stop supply into the State by “criminal gangs in Asia”, who he believes targeted the growing drug market created by the WA mining boom.

Drug Use in Western Australia

The 2013 national drug survey found that 3.8% of Western Australians aged over 13 had used methamphetamine during the previous year, significantly higher than the national average of 2.1%. The percentage using the crystalised version, or ice, rose from 43.9 to 78.2% between 2012 to 2013 – also well-above the rise in other jurisdictions.

The Judge added that WA Health Department data suggests the problem has worsened since the 2013 survey.

“We can no longer do anything to stop the predatory importing of the drug by Chinese criminal gangs and their Australian affiliates,” he said, suggesting that increased penalties and the targeting of offenders has done little to stem the problem.

“The damage now seems to have almost irreparably been done. The opportunities to do something about this were lost some years ago.”

State Response

Last year, the WA government established dedicated methamphetamine taskforces, conducting the biggest drug operation in the State’s history. Police Minister Liza Harvey said “Meth Transport Teams” were aiming to stop the flow of the drug from Asia.

The expensive initiative appears to achieved little, other than wasting taxpayer money and further demonising and alienating low-level users.

Government Initiatives

In last week’s State Budget, WA Treasurer Mike Nahan took the positive step of unveiling a $15 million boost to the Mental Health Commission, designed to target methamphetamine use. But at the same time, he set aside an additional $5.5 million for roadside drug testing.

Late last year, the Federal government committed to a $300 million strategy aimed at implementing recommendations by the National Ice Taskforce. Much of the money will be going to ‘primary health networks’ such as hospitals and medical centres, in order to treat users and assist them to overcome addiction.

And while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has conceded that “we cannot arrest our way to success,” the Federal Government’s continues invest the lion’s share of resources into punitive measures rather than prevention and diversion.

Prevention is Better than a ‘Cure’

Justice Minister Michael Keenan has acknowledged that police are struggling to control supply, suggesting more should be done to educate and reduce demand. “If we are going to break the drug dealer’s model, we need to smash demand,” he said.

Reducing demand requires adequate funding to services which address the factors leading to addiction in the first place, including those which help improve socio-economic status and mental health. Spending on housing, employment support and mental health services has been shown by initiatives like justice reinvestment to decrease demand, reduce crime and enhance social cohesion and economic productivity.

The UN Office 2013 World Drug Report says that for every dollar spent on prevention, there is a benefit of four to seven dollars to the economy overall. Such investments can reduce healthcare and enforcement costs, while enhancing productivity.

Professor Nick Crofts of The Nossal Institute for Global Health was recently commissioned to report on the problem of methamphetamine use. “We interviewed something like 50 senior police, senior magistrates, senior politicians, senior public servants,” he said. “Every one of them, unanimously, said, ‘You are absolutely right and we totally agree with you, we need to move away from prohibition, we need more social policy, and you will never catch me saying that in public’.”

It is hoped State and Federal governments act upon that “unanimous” view, and move away from the current punitive model.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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