“Organised crime in this state and the rest of the country is out of control and cannot be stopped without a radical change”, New South Wales (NSW) Crime Commission.
At the end of January 2017, Sydney’s senior law enforcement agency made the admission they had lost the “War on Drugs”. The revelation came that organised crime in NSW was out of control and anti-drug agencies were failing dismally to stem the tsunami of illicit substances flooding the streets. The revelation that 607 drug lords were operating in Sydney and law enforcement were unable to track them, followed a report by the NSW Crime Commission which found the rise of public enemies was “almost entirely driven by the prohibited drugs market”. The report revealed part of the problem is the number of drug lords who live overseas. “Prosecution of offshore principals is complex, costly and generally beyond the capability of state agencies”. The white flag followed a series of brazen murders in Sydney, with gangsters gunned down in public. Many drug lords do not live in Australia, operating from Dubai or China, making it virtually impossible for police to bring them down. A senior law enforcement insider said. “We are not losing the war on drugs, we have lost it”.
Only low-level ‘foot soldiers’ are arrested, which is good publicity for police but not making a dent in the problem. The report also warned murder is becoming easier for drug bosses, “The ability to raise vast amounts of cash enables organised crime groups to source weapons and employ persons prepared to undertake murder for profit …”. The Commission’s admission was at odds with claims by the NSW Police Commissioner that crime in the state was going down. “According to statistical reporting, mainstream crime has been slowly reduced over time … however, the observed situation in relation to organised crime is considered to be the opposite”, the report said. One senior law enforcement officer said, “The chances of having your car stolen or house broken into may have dropped but the chances your children will get hooked on drugs are a lot higher …”.
“The money they are making is obscene … runners coming over here from China, Mexico, Dubai and eastern Europe … picking up and laundering millions of dollars a week. And that’s only what we know about or detect”, Crime Commission insider.
Australian drug laws have been established by decree, based on media-generated bigotry and beliefs, not carefully analysed evidence nor scientific facts. Severe punishment for possession and use of outlawed ‘drugs’, many safer than alcohol or tobacco, is cruel and unjust. Governments and regulatory bodies conceal truths and maintain misconceptions to justify hypocritical punishments meted out by the courts. In the eyes of legislators it would seem any ‘drugs’, except alcohol and tobacco, that give a degree of pleasure must be prohibited and defined as ‘a dangerous drug of addiction’, whether or not the substance in question actually causes pharmacological harm! The Howard government (1996-2007) went from ‘harm minimisation’ to ‘zero tolerance’ with a “tough on drugs” policy. Prime Minister Howard used the phrase repeatedly, unambiguously and emphatically to describe his government’s approach to illicit drugs and often described his personal attitude as ‘zero tolerance’. After a 6:3 majority of the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy supported a scientific trial of prescription heroin in July 1997, Howard intervened personally to stop the trial on grounds research would ‘send the wrong message’.
“The key message is that we have 40 years of experience of a law-and-order approach to drugs and it has failed”, Hon. Dr Michael Wooldridge, Former Health Minister in the Howard Government
Under zero-tolerance, some ‘drug crimes’ have gone up in Australia, with methamphetamine use a growing problem for law enforcement and for those addicted to the crystal form of methamphetamine, or more precisely, ice. There is no epidemic, however, as statistics show those in Australia who use ice are in the same numbers who used other forms of methamphetamine before them. Rather than basing judgements on an incident or spate of incidents, or on how crime is portrayed in the mainstream media, it’s important to look at trends for crime, or, all reported crime. Surveys conducted by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show most people think crime is increasing when most crime is not. So with serious crime on the decline why are police arresting and processing more and more Australians every year? Prohibitionists want even more police actions to arrest, charge and imprison users and dealers, conveniently ignoring decades of this failed approach.
“We must show some balls in war on drugs”, screamed the headlines in 2015, followed by an obedient police force in NSW, arresting and charging countless young Australians possessing small amounts of illegal ‘drugs’. Despite strange, expensive and much mocked anti-Cannabis advertisements (Prohibitionists even distanced themselves from the now infamous ‘Stoner Sloth’ campaign), and excessive use of sniffer dogs, party drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine are still widely consumed across Australia. In 2016, ABC TV’s Four Corners showed the failure of current laws to deter ‘drug’ use and even former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Mick Palmer, AO APM, said mass arresting personal drug users is futile.
“It is easy to roll out arguments about the harm created by our current arrangements. Young people who are convicted for being in possession of small amounts of Cannabis automatically lose rights to be employed in the public service and in the defence forces and in the police services. They can’t travel …”, Mick Palmer (former Commissioner, AFP)
In early 2016, Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale was pushing for decriminalisation, arguing drug-taking is a health issue rather than a criminal one. Decriminalisation has been working well in Portugal for over a decade with reductions in drug-related harms, decline in drug use among the most vulnerable (including problematic users) and tremendous increases in the number of drug-dependent individuals accessing treatment. This has been followed by significant reductions in transmission of HIV, tuberculosis and diagnoses of AIDS has also decreased. Unsurprisingly decriminalisation reduced criminal drug offences, which led to a significant reduction in prison overcrowding. Law-enforcement statistics revealed an increase in operational capacity, more domestic drug trafficking seizures and an increase in international anti-trafficking collaborations. Police officers, initially resistant, view decriminalisation as a positive change, with people more likely to cooperate due to less fear of prosecution and improved community relations as a result. In terms of social costs decriminalisation over a 10 year period created a reduction of 18%, as a result of both indirect health and legal costs.
In Uruguay, it’s not legal to buy Cannabis on the street, yet, but the country has legal Cannabis Clubs which pool resources to grow and distribute to registered, paying members with no doctors involved. Legislation passed in 2013 allows Uruguayan residents to grow at home and soon pharmacies will begin selling across the country. Legislators say it is important to get the program right to serve as a model for legalising other substances and end the deadly, unproductive “War on Drugs”. Under Uruguay’s drug law, anyone found in possession of a ‘reasonable quantity exclusively destined for personal consumption’ as determined by a judge, is exempt from punishment. If a judge makes a determination drugs were intended for sale, production or distribution, they must explain the reasoning in any sentence issued. “Latin America is one of the regions which has suffered the most from the politics of Prohibition”, said legislator Sebastian Sabini in Montevideo. “We have a low-intensity undeclared war in Mexico, with 25,000 disappeared and 60,000 killed in recent years; wide-scale impunity and areas where narco-traffickers control daily life. We see drug groups donating to political campaigns, forming alliances with the state and infiltrating our institutions …”. Uruguay aims to avoid the creation of lucrative Cannabis businesses with profits tightly controlled, no brands and no advertising. It’s an approach Sabini would like to see extended to other illicit substances and he hopes by proving careful regulation can prevent increased use, decriminalisation can be extended to cocaine. He would also like to ban all alcohol advertising.
It would take a brave politician to advocate for legalisation of all illicit drugs in Australia, with the large disconnection from more enlightened policies or proposals internationally. In 2015, Irish police backed full decriminalisation of all illicit ‘drugs’ and in January 2017, Irish lawmakers made it known they want government to subsidise the medicinal use of Cannabis, following the United Kingdom, where health authorities determined CBD to be legitimately medicinal. Canada’s government has pledged to legalise all use of Cannabis, and a growing number of US states (28 medical and 8 full, February 2017) are regulating and taxing Cannabis (with authorities taking in nearly US$1 billion in tax). The paucity of sensible public debate over ‘drugs’ in Australia is clear. Major political parties, fearing a tabloid press backlash and loss of funding from other major industries, dare acknowledge the failures of Prohibition while support for legal access to Cannabis for medicinal uses has grown.
One of the key arguments for legalising ‘drugs’ is the reduction in criminality and violence with evidence from the US that this is happening in Colorado. Although legalising all ‘drugs’ wouldn’t completely remove worldwide criminality, it should make a significant difference, argued Annie Machon, former British intelligence officer and European Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a global group of former and current police and government officials who oppose the “war on drugs”.
“Decriminalisation is a good start but it wouldn’t remove criminal gangs. LEAP supports legalising, regulating and taxing all drugs”, Annie Machon said.
After decades of drug-related violence globally, especially in Mexico and South America, another path is essential. Australia and other western nations, markets for illicit substances, should be committed to finding more humane, sensible solutions. Prohibition places the emphasis on law enforcement and criminalisation, whereas other options, including de-penalisation, decriminalisation, legalisation, regulation and taxation would make it possible to focus primarily on the health and social effects. Governments in Australia often use harsh rhetoric when referring to drug use and users, clearly contrasting with two legal psychoactive drugs in widespread use, nicotine and alcohol. Despite creating far more health, social and economic costs than currently illegal ‘drugs’, they are not prohibited. Nicotine use has diminished with regulation, taxation and social control invoked, however, alcohol’s identifiable social harms continue to increase as earlier regulatory and social controls have been relaxed. But neither drug is prohibited, instead, they are controlled by governments, not organised crime.
Governments and the community need to consider the range of available alternatives to current criminalisation, and develop one which is actually effective. The unacceptably high number of drug deaths cannot be allowed to continue, with a particular need to engage parents and young people in considering benefits and costs of a shift away from Prohibition. A bipartisan political approach is highly desirable with the move against Prohibition gathering momentum in other countries across the ideological spectrum as communities around the world place responsibility for the costs of Prohibition where it belongs; with legislators who continue to support the international Prohibition approach.
Police from Strike Force Hyperion unload Cannabis seized from Clouds Creek State Forest, south of Nymboida, with an estimated (by law enforcement) street value of over AU$400,000.
In December 2016, annual police Cannabis raids across the Northern Rivers (NSW) were put under the microscope by law and Cannabis experts. 3,314 Cannabis plants were seized with an estimated ‘law-enforcement’ street value of AU$6.6 million. After more than two decades of annual eradication operations across the region, Southern Cross University’s School of Law and Justice lecturer, Aidan Ricketts, said the raids haven’t made a dint in supply and was critical of the effectiveness of the busts, saying, “Supply reduction doesn’t work because the laws of supply and demand will always fill any gap”. Nimbin HEMP Embassy President Michael Balderstone claimed the eradication program signifies “a cultural war rather than Cannabis search”. Mr Balderstone said a huge percentage of crops in the area are very small, grown for personal or medicinal use that would “never get to market or the street”.
According to Mr Ricketts, many commentators have suggested the police valuation of Cannabis plants at AU$2,000 a plant is “quite inflated”, and Mr Balderstone agrees, with male plants and seedlings seized by police “more or less worthless”. Balderstone said it’s ironic the herb is still illegal despite state government trials in ‘medicinal Cannabis’. Mr Ricketts questioned the imminence of Cannabis decriminalisation, “There is the sense that Cannabis decriminalisation is coming internationally one way or another and yet we are sort of operating on a business-as-usual model in Australia …”, he said. “If the herb is decriminalised in Australia, resources from the Cannabis eradication program could be reinvested into cracking down on other illicit substances such as ice. You’ve got things like meth., labs and other drugs which are of much more concern to the community, a lot of people would probably prefer to see the resources going into those operations”.
Australia’s National Drug Strategy:
- Supply Reduction – Reducing availability of drugs through legislation and law enforcement
- Demand Reduction – Reducing demand for drugs through prevention and treatment
- Harm Reduction – Reducing harms of drugs among the people who continue to use them
The argument most widely used in Australia supporting change in Prohibition is the current approaches are failing to achieve primary goals of reduced drug availability and harms. Instead they produce serious unintended adverse consequences, including corruption and more crime. Demonising substances that can have important health and social benefits results in demonising those who use them, by association, leading to considerable stigma and discrimination. Principal arguments used against changing failed policy tend to be moral, not scientific. The use of the term “war” in reference to drugs mobilises fear as a political asset, being part of a war against the threat of “evil drugs” has been a political vote winner. Being “soft on drugs” is a label used politically about those who question Prohibition. While drugs remain prohibited, there is a hugely lucrative black market committed to promoting them and many people are justifiably fearful of their children becoming exposed and entangled in the drug culture and its illegality.
“By maintaining prohibition and suppressing or avoiding debate about its costs and benefits, it can be argued justifiably that our governments and other community leaders are standing idly by while our children are killed and criminalised”. Australia21
In Australia, numbers of prisoners grew 8%, 2015-2016, with prisoners exhibiting high rates of recidivism, in large part due to ongoing problems with alcohol and other drugs along with a high rate of functional illiteracy and numeracy among prisoners and parolees. Keeping prisoners engaged with their family and community helps reduce recidivism. So, too, conjugal visits and the ability to be educated in a practical way to engage with the world outside. British Conservative Home Office Minister Douglas Hurd, who served in Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s governments said it best, “Prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse”. State and territory governments in Australia claim to be anxious to reduce spending, yet currently spend huge amounts of money incarcerating people at a higher rate than any European country and at a rate that is steadily increasing. Victoria’s Ombudsman believed the Andrews Government’s “short term headline-grabbing view of crime” does nothing to reduce crime or reoffending rates, but contributes to small-time offenders becoming hardened criminals.
Victoria’s overall crime rate rose by 12.4%, 2015-2016, largely as a result of a spike in property crime committed by young repeat offenders. The Victorian Andrews government faced criticism from opposition leader Matthew Guy, “there is a crime wave in this city that is out of control” claiming only his political party was tough enough to stop it. In September 2016 Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research called for a complete rethink of the way crime is dealt with in the face of an exploding NSW prison population. He believed “toning down the political rhetoric” was important for allowing investment to be made in what works, rather than what wins votes. It is hoped political leaders will focus on effective measures to reduce crime, rather than pandering to police associations and engaging in wars of words.
Victorian Shadow Police Minister Edward O’Donohue said the rise in crime is directly attributable to insufficient funding of the State’s police force. “As a result of Daniel Andrews’ weakening of our justice system, many of these offenders have little concern for the consequences of their crimes and are soon back out on the street”. Victoria’s Police Association Secretary said crime is caused by a reduced police presence, “When you have police stations that ten years ago put two vehicles on the road now struggling to get one out … of course, criminals will take advantage … it stands to reason that theft and burglaries will rise”. Those claims are not, however borne out by statistics or research, which suggests the most effective way of reducing crime is implementing preventative measures aimed at repeat offenders. If politicians are to move to change this culture they will need to be confident that any change will improve, not worsen, the current situation. A growing body of international evidence demonstrates that such concerns can be alleviated.
Adapted from Are Cannabis Raids Effective?, with Drug Laws By Decree, Not Scientific Fact, The war on drugs has failed, end it now, Organised crime in NSW at levels not seen previously as state loses war on drugs, Election FactCheck: is crime getting worse in Australia?, Recorded Crime – Offenders, 2015-16, Australian crime: Facts & figures: 2014 » Chapter 1: Recorded crime & selected crime profiles, A QUIET REVOLUTION: DRUG DECRIMINALISATION ACROSS THE GLOBE, Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges, Civil Liberties Australia, Bulging prisons? Recidivist politicians, Time for Australia to abandon ‘failed war on drugs’, The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen., In a first for Latin America, Uruguay rolls out program legalizing marijuana, and, Ombudsman Blasts Government’s ‘Tough on Crime’ Policies