For years, we have endured successive political leaders telling us that the only way to tackle drug use is to outlaw drugs altogether, and to impose harsh penalties on those who dare to break the law.
As a result, Australia’s drug laws have remained largely unchanged for decades, despite research showing that prohibition and punishment are not the best approach.
The latest statistics published by the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency (VCSA) provide further evidence that the war on drugs simply is not working; suggesting that the possession and use of drugs has not declines over the last decade – despite police and other agencies being equipped with greater resources.
Statistics Turn the Spotlight on Drug Crime
The VSCA utilised various data, including police records, between 2005 and 2015 to track the rates of drug use and possession in metropolitan, regional and rural Victoria, and to ascertain how the characteristics of offenders and crime rates differed across various geographical regions.
The statistics suggest that drug possession offences across the state increased from a rate of around 150 incidents per 100,000 people, to around 275 per 100,000 over that period of time. Drug possession was more prolific in regional areas, where it increased from around 175 incidents per 100,000, to over 350.
The study found that the characteristics of drug users has also changed over time; for instance, the percentage of female offenders has increased from 18% in 2011 to over 22% in 2015. Offenders located within metropolitan regions were more likely to be aged between 20 and 29 at the time of their first offence, while those in country areas were more likely to be aged over 40.
Why is the War on Drugs Failing?
As outlined in several previous blogs, the increase in police resources has failed to reduce the use of illicit drugs in Australian communities, particularly rural areas and at targeted events like music festivals. It appears that users remain undeterred by the threat of police intervention and heavy penalties, even when they know that police and sniffer dogs will be present.
Given the trend, it seems futile for Australian taxpayers to plough hundreds of millions of dollars every year into detecting and prosecuting minor drug offences; which have clogged up our courts and lined the pockets of criminal defence lawyers, without reducing the rates of drug use.
As previously discussed, treating drug use as a health problem – rather than as a crime – has been highly successful in encouraging users to get help in several overseas countries, including Portugal and Norway, and in reducing the number of deaths from drug overdoses, lowering rates of drug-associated crime and helping habitual users to overcome their addictions.
In 2014, a working group presented a number of submissions to this effect to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, noting that drug abuse was a disease and should therefore be addressed by public health bodies rather than the criminal justice system.
Dr. Nora Volkow, who headed the group, observed that:
‘No one would imagine that enforcing tough legal sanctions on people with a chronic condition such as heart disease could help address that illness or its causes, or help prevent it in others. Criminal justice is clearly not the way forward in dealing with substance use disorders either; putting people with addictions in prison and perpetuating various legal barriers to seeking or providing substance abuse treatment are only hindrances.’
The United Nations is due to hold a special session on international drug issues next year. It hopes that member states will heed the advice provided by Dr. Volkow’s group amongst others, and take the first steps towards reclassifying drug use as a health issue, rather than criminally prosecuting users and alienating them from the community.