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Dealing with Drugs: a new approach

In July 2001 the government of Portugal took the extraordinary step of decriminalising drugs including cocaine and heroin. While some other European States have taken some less radical approaches and made criminal prosecutions less common in certain circumstances, Portugal remains the only EU country to officially decriminalise drug possession and use. After 12 years the data shows that, by nearly every measure, the Portuguese decriminalization structure has been a booming success. The execution of this brave new step forward in fighting the evil of drugs can, and should be, a catalyst to guide the rest of the world to a more mature approach to tackling the drug problem.

This is not the first time someone has tried to demonstrate the folly of our approach to tackling the drug problem in our society and doubtless it won’t be the last. I realize too, that the emotive issue attached to this disease is probably the single most difficult side-issue working against our efforts. Put simply, emotions are not going to help us in the fight against drugs. Emotions are about as helpful as the present, outdated, unworkable, inefficient laws that our governments force the police, and the judiciary, as well as Customs and Immigration to work within, and which plague our community outreach centres.

drug use

Source: Anex

Drugs kill people, mostly our young; so do cigarettes, alcohol, sleeping pills, motor cars, aeroplanes, kitchen knives and any number of other items we use every day. Yet, of these, drugs are the only ones we outlaw, setting aside that vast arsenal of prescription drugs we permit for lots of different reasons. But, like the ones we outlaw, even the drugs we approve, can be abused and result in death.

So what have we learned from all of this? Nothing, it would appear.
Just as the USA learned that its prohibition laws against alcohol in the 1920’s were nothing more than an expensive waste of tax-payers’ money, it is safe to say our experience with the criminalisation of drug possession and use, is just as fruitless. Prohibition of any kind creates black market crime. We should have learned that by now. Those who want drugs, find them by various means. Some are so desperate they buy home-made concoctions. Some of it is so poorly refined, it kills people. Drug dealers don’t care.

So that begs the question, when are we going to demonstrate some maturity here? Does anyone seriously think that the present method of tackling the drug problem is working? Does making drugs a criminal offense work? Does that stop the drug trade? The issue of drug related theft is just one spin-off to these laws that is out of control. There is also the issue of drug related murder, rape and white collar crime.

Fifty years ago, 75% of adults in Australia smoked cigarettes. Today the figure is less than 20%. Did we achieve that by outlawing cigarettes? No, we achieved that through education and rehabilitation. Consider for a moment that if drugs were de-criminalized and we transferred all the money we currently spend on law enforcement into education and rehabilitation, we would likely be no worse off than we are now. The result in Portugal suggests we would be better off. Drug use there is in decline. Such a relatively simple policy turn-a-round could so easily create the foundation for a more enlightened approach to this insidious ailment?

What stops us from doing this is the emotional element. We think of drugs and we fear for our sons and daughters. We must protect them. Time and time again, the fear of our society going to the dogs, and the ever-present threat to our young seems to blind us to responsible, mature, decision making.

Let us for a moment imagine a world where blind fear does not get in the way of responsible decision making. It begins with recognizing that drugs will always be available and that trying to stop their manufacture, distribution and sale is a waste of time. On the contrary, by trying to stop them, we actually encourage and assist black-markets to flourish.

The former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdrey believes the state should legalise illicit drugs and take over their supply and distribution. The release of the Australia 21 Report to which he is a signatory opened the floodgates of debate on illicit drug use in 2012. But it seems that is as far as things got. Expecting the current conservative government to show leadership in this area is a waste of time. But the debate should continue until common sense prevails. The savings we would achieve in law enforcement that could be channeled into educating our young to the dangers associated with drugs is self-evident.

For those who think our young who don’t “do drugs” would suddenly rush headlong into experimentation, the Portugal data suggests otherwise. Would those who take drugs today suddenly stop? No, of course not. Will some still overdose and die as a result? Yes, they will. There’s an idiot on every corner. Would decriminalisation mean we as a community would be worse off than we are now? I don’t think so.

I strongly suspect that over time, we would position ourselves far more effectively to deal with the problem and at the very least, be heading down the right path. And who knows? Perhaps in ten to fifteen years time, when the next generation of potential addicts enters the target market, they might be sufficiently educated and alert to the dangers to be dissuaded from experimenting.


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  1. Kaye Lee

    This is a debate I have had many times. If the drugs were provided on prescription to registered addicts they would be much cheaper, they wouldn’t be cut with bad things, they would be of a set strength, clean delivery systems could be provided, part of the deal could be regular counselling and health checks and assistance to beat the habit and social workers to help.

    It would also cut out the big money involved with drug supply which is what is funding organised crime.

    Colorado and Washington have legalised cannabis for recreational use. Holland has coffee shops where cannabis is available but they have to be a certain distance from schools. Cannabis is also used for medicinal purposes to treat pain, nausea and loss of appetite. Hemp is a whole industry with many uses.

    What we are doing is no good for the addicts and no good for our society in that it encourages crime. We need to take control of the problem with health and education as crucial aspects rather than judgement and punishment.

  2. Carol Taylor

    I agree absolutely. As Kaye Lee mentioned, in the states of the USA people who need medicinal cannabis (such as cancer patients) can obtain it with a doctor’s prescription while here in Australia any high school child can get dope if they want it, but cancer sufferers cannot. The difficulty with cannabis is that anyone can grow it, where’s the $$s from that? What would Big Pharma do to make a profit? The clear answer is to keep it illegal. While it’s illegal, Big Pharma profits and the drug dealers profit.

  3. John921Fraser


    Having seen schizophrenic episodes from grass usage i'm inclined to think its about time more research was done.

    Perhaps when the discovery is made into why some people suffer schizophrenia then they will discover why grass appears to increase the prevalence of it in users.

    I don't have a problem with its use for medicinal purposes ….. settling chemo & Parkinsons disease.

  4. Matters Not

    Travelled a little. Bit surprised in central Amsterdam to be offered marijuana in various ‘strengths’ and ‘types’ in an everyday market. Twelve varieties as I recall. In short, it was freely available. (No I didn’t deliberately inhale but it was ‘smoked’ in coffee shops and the like. Simply, it was here, there, and everywhere.)

    Still very contentious in Europe.

    As for Portugal, I spent a month there approximately 2 years ago. It’s possibly the poorest country in the European Union, but that may have changed with the recent addition of Slovenia.

    The unemployment rate in Portugal is ‘through the roof’. Petty crime, particularly in the form of ‘pick pockets’ is endemic. (Three incidents on one Sunday tram ride.)

    Yes Portugal is ‘experimenting’ with ‘drug use’ and how to respond to same but I suspect there’s no silver bullet there or here. Take Asia as another example, where the penalties are very severe. Been to many Asian States including Laos, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, South Korea, Burma/Myanmar, Thailand and the like.

    While I don’t advocate a ‘hard’ approach, because it doesn’t work, I don’t think a ‘soft’ approach solves the ‘problem’.

    Perhaps in the whole order of things, it’s only a problem for some?

  5. corvus boreus


  6. DanDark

    Alcohol still does the most amount of damage in this country
    Also classed as a “mind altering” drug
    But because alcohol is legal, the victims of this addiction are somehow different
    No they are not, it’s no diff to any other drug addiction, but illegal drugs are the “bad” ones

    Alcohol costs our Heath system the most still, alcohol fuel violence is on the rise
    just go and work in a casualty dept on Friday Saturday nights,
    and they are full of the consequences of alcohol,

    I feel we should look at all mind altering drugs when discussing the drug problem, but because
    Alcohol is socially accepted even by our pollies, well we are only tearing away at the edge
    Especially with the young, also gambling is an addiction, hard to test for that,
    It is the only addiction, that we do not consume anything into our bodies, a new age addiction
    in other words, and costs people their money, family and sometimes even their lives,

  7. corvus boreus

    In the eternal internal dichotomy, there’s a push pull here.
    I have sympathy(emotive) and understanding(analytical) for increased tolerance to adult substance abuse. Dumb me bin dare dun dat, and I, despite thoroughly understanding it’s damages, still consume ethanol.
    Also have opinions leaning other way in regard to personal responsibility, especially regarding pollies(some may have noticed).
    On an other side, I think there is a whole side regarding funneling our young(children, not youth) into patterns of addiction that is seldom addressed.
    When you pull into a drive-thru takeaway, the default drink for your child’s drink(brown in colour) will contain(for a small body) a very large dose of the addictive compound Tri-methyl-xanthene. Perfectly legal, but capable of being ingested as a lethal overdose. Leads to irritability, restlessness, high blood pressure and kidney malfunction. Mostly called Caffeine, and sold in sugar rich, carbonated(bubbles enable compounds to faster penetrate the bloodsteam) beverages.
    Perhaps a child might even seem overexitable and be dosed with Ritalin(C,TM,etc) for repeat scripts.
    Now there’s another story.
    It’s called the world of legal addictives.

  8. corvus boreus

    Mummy!!! I WANT MACCAS!!!

  9. DanDark

    Yeah says it all “Ritalin”
    A newly diagnosed disease, that the new medical fraternity, we call psychology
    Kids pumped with prescription drugs for years, and yes it’s to zombifie a kid
    Who’s making all the money, doctors and big pharma

  10. corvus boreus

    I feed my children a derivative of meth-amphetamine because it stops him craving tri-methyl-xanthene. I want what’s best for them.

  11. corvus boreus

    for “him” read “them”

  12. DanDark

    yes it is a sad state of affairs, that parents think it is best for the kid
    like parents think, people in day care centers can raise their kids better than themselves
    An expert in this field said “parents do not have enough confidence in their own parenting abilities” so they have to make a lot of money to pay a lot of money “for experts” to care for them, in system, that is very restricted and very conforming to a growing brain
    He also said” kids in daycare are over stimulated, as at home with mother they are not exposed to this overstimulation, hence overexcited generation of day care kids, now on Ritalin to zombifie them,, geeee I wouldn’t be a kid for quids these days,,human guinea pigs is how the are looked at by big pharma
    I think we have to make a choice weather to be a mother or not, you have to sacrifice the good(career) for the greater(children), and if you cant, well stick to the career I think
    being a mother is a career in its own, which is highly undervalued by society these days sadly

  13. corvus boreus

    I can’t judge any parent too harshly, I’ve never taken on that job. I just think there is a whole world of addiction hidden in legal substances. Ritalin, at least, needs dodgy doctors to prescribe it. For most kids, behavioral mimicking of parental addictions(drinking and smoking) aside, readily available caffeine is the gateway drug, and the majority of parents don’t even realise it.

  14. DanDark

    I don’t judge people Corvous,
    I judge the consequences of peoples actions
    how it affects all society, and we all pay
    for every single persons actions
    or non action,

  15. corvus boreus

    And so we all should do, to try to live as ethical beings in a shared verse.
    Consequence or Karma, it still slaps you when you look back.

  16. corvus boreus

    By you , this one means us/me, us/we 😉

  17. DanDark

    LOL yeah it goes something like that Corvus
    Karma, its the law of the universe, although there are some “Karma deniers” 🙂

  18. Anomander

    Having encountered many heroin users over the years, I have always been a strong advocate in the state needing to step-in and deliver prescribed doses rather than outlawing it – much the same as Nicholas Cowdrey posits. For one, you could be assured of quality, purity, consistent dosage, safe injecting performed in medical facilities under the eye of medical professionals, and while you have them there they are a captive audience where you can engage them in educational programs. You also destroy the multi-billion dollar crime syndicates involved in importation, manufacture and distribution, that fuels theft, violence and public safety. It would certainly be cheaper to administer that the wildly expensive ‘war on drugs’ which consumes enormous resources and makes little headway.

    While many people seem to be in favour of legalising cannabis I have concerns with the hybridisation that has taken place over recent decades aimed at markedly increasing the levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). THC is the compound that alters brain chemistry and delivers the high – the greater the levels of THC the more intense the resultant rush, and the larger the impact upon brain chemistry, particularly for long-term users or adolescents and young adults, whose brains are still developing.

    This significant alteration in neurological chemistry is why we are seeing a noticeable increase in personality disorders associated with cannabis use and it appears there is a possible causation with the increased THC levels found in most hybridised strains.

    Cannabis in wild populations appears to have additional compounds that act to directly counteract or protect against the negative psychological effects of THC, but compound has been bred-out in order to achieve greater THC levels because it gives a better, stronger, longer-lasting effect. But without the protective compounds, users are exposed to stronger effects but with none of the naturally occurring counteractive agents.

    Not everyone is susceptible to these disorders but we don’t know enough about which people are more likely to suffer and exactly why. Until more work is done in this field to firmly establish the causal link, I for one would not be comfortable with us proceeding to decriminalisation just yet, not until safer forms of the drug could be developed with more normalised THC and increased levels of the counteractive compound. Essentially, we need a safer form of cannabis that the ones readily available or we risk decriminalising a drug that is likely to lead to even greater incidences of personality type disorders.

  19. Kaye Lee


    I agree about the strength of cannabis changing but research has been going on for a long time. When I was at Sydney Uni in the 70s they were doing clinical trials then on the effects of THC.

    As for some people having a bad reaction, that is the case with many things in our society. People have allergies or adverse reactions to medications. We know the deleterious effects of alcohol and cigarettes (and I will add in gambling) but the government is happy to make money from these socially acceptable vices where overuse is known to be extremely harmful to every user. That is where the prohibition argument always falls down. Alcohol is causing far more problems than cannabis. That in itself is no reason to introduce another harmful substance but I think the debate about comparative harm will paint alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drug abuse in a far worse light.

    In my experience, psychotic episodes and schizophrenia are rare (though ice is a huge problem in this regard). A far more widespread symptom of overuse is demotivation plus the ill effects of smoking.

    I agree with John that the discussion must be had. Ignoring the problem is cutting people off from help and allowing criminals to make a fortune.

  20. Carol Taylor

    There is also the law enforcement element, that being (much to the frustration of law enforcement agencies themselves) that so much time and valuable resources are taken up chasing people for minor infringements that it leaves little time and resources to chase real criminals, the drug barons/pimps.

  21. Carol Taylor

    Again on the law enforcement many crimes, break and enter especially are committed by people looking for money with which to buy drugs? The answer is almost all. IF such a person with an addiction could register as an addict, go to their doctor for a dose measured by a professional, so as to gradually wean the person from their addiction (or at least control it), then that person instead of being involved in crime, theft and prostitution would be able to receive the assistance that they need. At the present point in time few addicts receive help for their addictions due to the criminal nature of the offence. Making the drug of addiction available on prescription (available exactly the same as other controlled substances via a central registry), benefits everyone, the person plus society. It therefore makes one wonder exactly who is making the monstrous profits out of the sad and life threatening addictions of others? Who is set to benefit? Who is it who tries to stifle debate by name-calling of anyone who would suggest that reform is urgently needed?

  22. Richard Thompson

    For me, the key point of this article is that emotions get in the way of decision making. Very few, if any, coldly objective measures of the “war on drugs”indicate that it is successful in any way.

    Politicians are masters of manipulating emotions, particularly fear. The “war on drugs” allows them to utilise one of their main strengths in order to pursue control. Indicative of their skills is the number of people who unthinkingly repeat their hypnosis – “illegal drugs are bad” and fume at any attempt to question their almost religious faith in the dictate.

    There is unlikely to ever be a perfect answer to the harm caused by drugs, both legal and illegal so it becomes a matter of assessing cost and risk. Unfortunately the “war on drugs” scores poorly on both these metrics with: a poor return on invested resources; increased risk to society from the negative effects of prohibition driven black marketry; and, perhaps most tragically, the sacrifice of people’s lives in the vain pursuit of quelling an insidiously implanted fear.

  23. Kaye Lee

    The fear campaign becomes counterproductive to education. Years ago (I hope things have changed) we invited a government employee to come to the school I was teaching at to speak to the kids about drugs. His information was a total fear campaign, worst case scenarios about everything which did not gel with the kids’ personal experiences and so was rejected for the hyperbole that it was. We need to be truthful when educating kids – talk about real dangers, not extreme cases. Arm them with correct information. Teach them how to get help before they sink too far. Talk about the reasons people drink or take drugs – don’t demonise it to be only bad people. Emphasise how drug and alcohol dependence will hinder them in achieving their goals. Do you ever want to go to the States? Well you can’t if you have a drug conviction. Show them the consequences of driving under the influence. Be real.

    And I agree on the time and money wasted both in pursuing users and prosecuting and incarcerating them.

  24. Nuff Said

    The pursuit of altered states of consciousness for purposes of escapism or entertainment or even philosophic experimentation is not going to stop. Ever. We do need a new approach – one that recognises that fact but also the inherent dangers. There’s no such thing as a safe or benign recreational drug.

  25. CMMC

    Most heroin users I have known were otherwise law-abiding middle class types.

    One of them worked for a stockbroking firm, he was brilliant at his job and the firm wanted to promote him to work at the Exchange floor, buying and selling for clients. But this would have involved a police check, and he had been busted many times.

    The main drug danger as regards young people are the steroids and peptides which are gradually being thought of as ‘health products’.

  26. jimhaz

    [While many people seem to be in favour of legalising cannabis I have concerns with the hybridisation that has taken place over recent decades aimed at markedly increasing the levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)]

    Yes, but the thing is that were cannibis sale under government control, then you can introduce a gradual decrease in THC over 10 years back to past levels.

    For me there is no debate about whether cannibis and E’s should be legalised. I do not see governments or any other group as having any role in what adults may choose to take, providing it only harms the person, not others. My body and brain is my own, not the communities.

    Drug use is not a new thing – in ancient times, for certain periods anyway, drug use was rampant. Eventually I can see us humans being drugged up in a virtual world while robots do all the work – and don’t really see any problem with that. If you are going to live over 100 years, repetition becomes so boring.

    To minimise drug use by children is a government role and should be mostly tackled by education, as stated.

  27. Richard Thompson

    Jimhaz, I’m confused by your “free to be” but “government must decide attitude”. Handing over the reigns is an all or nothing choice.

    As well intentioned as “let adults look after themselves but make government look after the children” sounds it is still giving power over your life to a stranger. The solution you propose (if I have understood you correctly) is only one or two steps removed from the current situation.

    I would argue that it is no solution at all.

    An hierarchy of child -> parent -> uber-parent does not bode well for the second rung.

  28. corvus boreus

    jimhaz, refrain from watching “Animatrix” whilst post-rave baked, and you will have less futere visions of uber-pickled pleasure zombies with robo-slaves.

  29. jimhaz

    Richard – the context of your points are not clear enough. If what I say is only one or two points removed, governments actually selling dope is one pretty significant point.

    [Handing over the reigns is an all or nothing choice]

    I don’t see why that would be the case.

  30. jimhaz

    corvus boreus – in relation to your mockery of my guess at a possible future for humanity. I’ll guess we will never know. Personally though I see it being bound to occur, on the rider that we do not burn out due to overpopulation and a lack of resources or via the competition games of the mega-rich.

    One only has to look at the progression in the last 50 years of computerisation, without even considering the eventual expotential growth in technology development that 2bn educated Chinese and Indians will bring.

    We are not that far off bodily regeneration – imagine living for 300 years. I’d take a virtual world + drugs to cause emotion any day.

  31. corvus boreus

    Kind of forsee a different future, hope I don’t see it. It’s a bit bleak.
    Sorry about the mockery(amusing phased but, eh?).
    Enjoy the youthful(?) sperimenting, but remember, a few days on the side of a hill with a pure body and clear mind, listening to the silence, will often bring more clear insights than a handful of pharmas.

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